COPD is a progressive lung disease that makes it increasingly difficult to breathe. It is the third leading cause of death in the country — 24 million people in the U.S. have the disease, but 12 million do not know they have it. While COPD is a growing health crisis, certain states are seeing a higher prevalence of the disease. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published the first ever state-by-state COPD prevalence rates based on the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). It was shown that Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee are among the highest in the nation, all having over an 8-percent diagnosis rate in their adult population.
Signs of COPD include chronic cough, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. People often misread these symptoms as signs of aging or being out of shape. This is a common mistake, because COPD mostly occurs in people 40 years of age and older, just as middle age starts to settle in. People may also connect weight gain or inactivity with shortness of breath. Yet, COPD can develop for years without any noticeable signs of shortness of breath.
There is a correlation between former smokers and COPD. Not everyone who smokes develops COPD, but most of the individuals who have COPD (about 90 percent) have smoked. Heavy or long-term contact with secondhand smoke or other lung irritants in the home, such as organic cooking fuel, may also cause COPD.
Environmental factors may also contribute to COPD. Long-term exposure to harmful pollutants in the workplace and exposure to dust or fumes can be a factor. Even if an individual has never smoked or been exposed to pollutants for an extended period of time, they can still develop COPD.
To find out if you’re at risk for COPD, take the COPD Risk Screener atwww.copdfoundation.org/screener.aspx and answer five brief questions. A simple breathing test, called spirometry, may be ordered by your healthcare provider to test you for COPD, especially if you are a current or former smoker, have been exposed to harmful lung irritants for a long period of time, or have a history of COPD in your family.
Making lifestyle changes is one of the best ways to manage a COPD diagnosis. Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke, which can be just as dangerous as smoking, are two ways to help slow the progression of the disease. Also avoiding lung irritants, like dust, air pollution, paint sprays, chemical fumes and other airborne irritants will help symptoms from worsening.
At times, individuals who live with COPD experience acute exacerbations — a flare up or episode when breathing gets worse than usual and can lead to infection. Exacerbations can be serious, prompting a call to the physician, visit to the emergency room, or overnight stay in the hospital. Because exacerbations can cause the disease to progress faster, it’s important to help prevent them as much as possible. This means learning to recognize early warning signs and working with your physician to determine the best treatment.
There are many different therapies available for the treatment of COPD including medication and various breathing techniques. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs are also very beneficial and can help you learn to breathe – and function – at the highest level possible.
Finally, get help and support by calling the C.O.P.D. Information Line at 1-866-316-COPD (2673). You can connect with the COPD community and talk to others who are living well with many of the same challenges you face. If you are diagnosed with COPD, seriously consider making changes in your life. Talk with your doctor about what you can do to breathe better and improve your ability to take part in your usual activities.
John W. Walsh, who was diagnosed with Alpha-1-related genetic COPD in 1989, is the President and Co-Founder of the COPD Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing and supporting programs, which improve the quality of life through research, education, early diagnosis and enhanced therapy for persons whose lives are impacted by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).