If you've never heard of COPD, you're not alone. In fact, of the 24 million Americans who have it, as many as half don't even know it. The lack of knowledge about COPD means people with it aren't getting the treatment they need to slow its progression.
COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It's an umbrella term that includes the respiratory conditions chronic (long-term) bronchitis and emphysema, and it's now the third leading killer in this country. The majority people with COPD—76 percent—get it from smoking, but it's far more than just smoker's cough, so you should never dismiss that symptom as a simply an inevitable side effect of smoking.
There are also people—24 percent—who never smoked yet developed COPD; often the cause is exposure to secondhand smoke or other environmental factors, like chemical fumes, on the job.
COPD is not only an illness of advanced age—52 percent of those with COPD are under 65.
COPD can't be cured, but it can be slowed down with treatment. Treatment can delay the more serious consequences of COPD, such as needing oxygen to breath.
Know The Signs
In addition to a chronic cough and wheezing, COPD symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath while doing activities you used to be able to do, even everyday activities like household chores and getting dressed
- Excessive mucus or sputum production
- Feeling like you can't breathe or can't take in a deep breath
Testing For COPD
COPD testing isn't complicated or painful. It should involve a simple test called spirometry, named for the spirometer, the device used to measure how well your lungs are working. You take a deep breath and then exhale into a tube to measures key characteristics of your exhalation: The total amount you exhaled, the forced vital capacity or FVC, and how much you exhaled in the first second, the forced expiratory volume in 1 second or FEV1. The results of the test can determine whether you have COPD.
If you have COPD symptoms, are or were a smoker or work at a job that exposes you to chemicals, strong fumes, or even dust, talk to your doctor about getting tested. However, don't wait until you have symptoms for COPD to get the test—the earlier COPD is diagnosed, the better you can control it.
Important Lifestyle Steps To Manage Your Health
Stop smoking. Some people shrug their shoulders at a COPD diagnosis and keep smoking, figuring that since they already have COPD, why bother quitting? But the fact is that smoking will just speed up the seriousness of COPD, the breathing difficulties it causes and, eventually, the inability for you to breathe on your own. Also, stay away from smokers and places where air quality is poor, including the outdoors when there's an alert about your area.
Take care of yourself. Eat a more nutritious diet so that your body has the protein, vitamins and minerals needed to keep you as strong and healthy as possible. Do some form of exercise, even if you have difficulty working out like you used to. Talk to your doctor about mapping out a fitness plan that you can manage and stick with.
Check in with your doctor. By regularly monitoring your condition, you can slow down COPD's progression and live better. Getting an annual flu shot and possibly the pneumonia vaccine are also important steps—having COPD makes you more vulnerable to serious complications from influenza.