Each November, health care providers and the community come together to promote a better understanding of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a progressive lung disease that affects millions of people across the country. Increasing awareness about COPD and its symptoms is important, because early diagnosis and treatment can improve a person’s quality of life. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more women than men. While tobacco smoke is the primary cause of this disease, one in four people with COPD has never smoked. Other causes of COPD include environmental exposure to dust, molds, bacteria, fumes and chemicals, and a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.
COPD can be difficult to catch in the early stages. It develops slowly, and symptoms may not appear until the lungs have already suffered significant damage. If you have symptoms such as frequent coughing (with or without mucus), increased shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in the chest or recurring respiratory infections, see your health care provider as soon as possible. Over time, these symptoms will become worse.
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To confirm a diagnosis of COPD, your physician will ask questions concerning your history and perform a physical exam. They will also perform tests such as the pulmonary function test, pulse oximetry, arterial blood gases, chest X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans of the chest and lungs. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, you will have a treatment plan composed of such interventions as breathing treatments, airway clearance techniques, smoking cessation, breathing retraining and pulmonary rehabilitation classes.
Additional conditions seem to be common in people with COPD. These conditions may include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression, and put you at greater risk for lung cancer. Experts believe that inflammation in the lungs and blood in people with COPD can lead to these conditions.
Prevention and management of symptoms are essential, as there is currently no cure for COPD. To reduce your risk, quit smoking, stay away from secondhand smoke, reduce exposures to fumes, dust, and chemicals, eat healthy and exercise. Developing an action plan can help you recognize the signs and symptoms of a respiratory infection and prevent recurring respiratory infections and hospitalizations.
It is always important to talk with your health care provider about your COPD and any other health problems you may have. They can help develop a plan to improve shortness of breath and overall quality of life. So don’t let COPD take your breath away — early diagnosis is the key!
Learn more about COPD, common causes and symptoms, how it is diagnosed and how you can enjoy life and live for many years with COPD through the COPD Foundation website, www.copdfoundation.org.
Debbie Jones, RRT, Columbus Community Hospital pulmonary rehabilitation