It's the most dangerous killer you may never have heard of. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the umbrella term for a group of lung diseases that include emphysema and bronchitis.
According to the National Institutes of Health, COPD is now the third leading cause of death in the United States, claiming the lives of 120,000 Americans every year. It also creates years of long-term disability that severely impacts your life. While COPD can't be cured, it can be slowed down with treatment. That's why getting a diagnosis is so important.
The most overwhelming cause of COPD is smoking cigarette, but it's not the only one. Exposure to chemicals, either on the job or in your home environment, as well as some genetic conditions put you at risk.
One of the key effects of COPD is difficulty pushing used air out of your lungs and taking in new air. You may also notice coughing, with or without sputum, and the feeling of breathlessness, which usually worsens as time goes on. You might have trouble walking just a few steps or finding the energy to get dressed in the morning. Everyday activities can exhaust you.
Other signs and symptoms of COPD are a tightness in your chest, wheezing, needing to clear your throat of excess mucus when you wake up and getting repeated respiratory infections. You may experience flare-ups of these symptoms. They get even worse for a certain amount of time, then ease off until the next flare, but never go away.
The COPD Alliance, an organization dedicated to providing primary care providers with the information, tools and support they need to recognize, diagnose and treat COPD, has a 5-question survey on their website that you can take to determine whether it's time to talk to your doctor about your symptoms.
Unfortunately, many COPD symptoms aren't noticeable until the disease is advanced and lung damage has occurred. That's why it's important to talk to your doctor about screening for COPD if you have any risk factors, even without symptoms.
The main diagnostic test for COPD is an easy one. Called spirometry, it simply involves measuring your breathing ability with a small instrument. The test measures the amount of air you can breathe out and the amount of time it takes you to do it.
In fact, it's remarkable what this one test can do. Spirometry can show how well your lungs are working, whether you have COPD, how serious your COPD is, what treatment you might need and, later on, how well that treatment is working and if it's slowing down COPD's progression.
Your primary doctor should be able to administer the test, though if you have COPD, consulting with a lung specialist might be advised.
If you are or were a long-time smoker or have reason to suspect an environmental or genetic risk, talk to your doctor right away.