Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, more commonly referred to as COPD, is one of the most common lung diseases that makes breathing difficult. According to the COPD Foundation, it affects an estimated 24 million individuals in the U.S., and over half of them have symptoms and do not know it.
There are two main forms of COPD: chronic bronchitis, which involves a long-term cough with mucus, and emphysema, which involves damage to the lungs over time. Many people with COPD have a combination of both conditions.
The American Lung Association states that over 80 percent of all COPD cases are caused by cigarette smoking. The poisons in cigarette smoke can weaken the lungs' defense against infections, narrow air passages, cause swelling in air tubes and destroy air sacs.
Other common factors for developing COPD include exposure to irritating gases, fumes and dusts in the workplace; exposure to heavy amounts of secondhand smoke and pollution; and a history of COPD in one’s family. Additionally, most diagnosed with COPD are over 40 years of age.
Because the symptoms develop slowly, some people may not know that they have COPD.
Common symptoms of COPD include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
- Excess mucus in the lungs
- Chronic cough
COPD is a progressive disease without a cure. However, there are many treatment options available to relieve symptoms and manage the condition.
Treatments can reduce or control symptoms, reduce the risk for infections and complications and improve a patient’s quality of life.
Treatment options may include pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy, medications, inhalers and lifestyle changes. For some, surgery may be necessary.
Those with COPD should focus on controlling symptoms through proper hand washing, keeping vaccinations up to date, following physician orders and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The best way to prevent COPD is to not smoke. And if you do smoke, quit immediately. Also, wearing respiratory protective equipment if you are exposed to lung irritants and exercising regularly to build lung strength both help reduce the risk of COPD.
COPD symptoms do not typically appear until there is already considerable lung damage, so early prevention and detection is key.
If you believe you are at risk for COPD, talk to your doctor about screenings for early detection. For more information, visit CarilionClinic.org.
Jeremy A. Llavore, M.D., is a Carilion Clinic Family Medicine physician based in Boones Mill, Va. Learn more about where Dr. Llavore went to medical school and where you can find him when he's not caring for patients.