Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is now the third-leading cause of death in the United States. COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In the United States, more women than men die of COPD, which is more deadly than breast cancer and diabetes combined. Most people with COPD are 40 years of age or older, and about 70 percent of Americans with the disease are younger than 65.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. What we can do is try to prevent it and, in persons who have COPD, manage symptoms to improve quality of life. However, the condition will eventually get worse.
The majority of people with COPD are not diagnosed until they have already lost half their lung function. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chronic coughing and wheezing. Many people assume these problems are a normal part of aging, but they are not. It’s important to tell your doctor as soon as symptoms appear or if you have any of the risk factors, so that proper diagnosis can be made and treatment begun early.
COPD is relatively easy to diagnose using a spirometry tube, in which the patient exhales as much air as possible into the tube. The doctor may order additional tests or a chest X-ray or CT scan.
COPD is a preventable disease. Ninety percent of patients smoke or have smoked in the past. There is currently no data on the effects of using electronic cigarettes. Smoking is not the only cause. Second-hand smoke, occupational dust and chemicals, air pollution and genetic factors also can lead to COPD.
Treatment of COPD includes taking controlling medications regularly to help keep the airways open and to prevent flare-ups. Stopping smoking is essential. If you have difficulty stopping smoking, your physician can recommend medication aids to help. Physical activity is also important, as are vaccinations for influenza and pneumonia. Oxygen therapy may be needed in some cases.
Rescue inhalers are used during flare-ups and when symptoms worsen. Flare-ups usually become more frequent as the condition progresses. Flare-ups can lead to hospitalization and an increase in the daily medication required.
When COPD reaches a critical stage, a lung transplant is sometimes performed. Lung transplants may improve the quality of life but may not improve the length of life. Transplants are not always possible or successful, due to factors such as rejection and infection.
To take a screening survey for COPD, go to the website www.copd.org/screening/survey.