The sad fact is COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease, cancer, and stroke. It turns out your lungs are a precious resource —just like your heart—and need to be protected throughout your life.
Just like heart disease, COPD can be silent for many years, until it’s nearly too late. About 24 million Americans have COPD, but half of them don’t know it yet. COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and it is often a combination of the two. In emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs lose their stretchiness and don’t work as well. In chronic bronchitis, irritation and inflammation lead to thick mucus and difficulty breathing.
COPD only strikes smokers
The main cause of COPD is smoking, as well as exposure to secondhand smoke. But not everyone with COPD is a current or former smoker.
Long-term exposure to pollutants is a problem and some occupations are riskier than others for lung health. There’s also a genetic condition, alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which increases COPD risk; it accounts for only about 5% of COPD cases.
Outside the U.S., COPD is an even bigger problem, especially in cultures where people cook food in closed huts over open fires, says Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association.
Shortness of breath is the main symptom
People with COPD can also have coughing, wheezing, and a tight feeling in their chest, but shortness of breath is often the first sign. They may feel winded going up stairs or realize they need to catch their breath more than others.
People with COPD tend to be more susceptible to frequent colds and are likely to struggle with recurring bouts of the flu or pneumonia, which can increase shortness of breath and other symptoms.
Shortness of breath and coughing can also be a sign of asthma. Women with COPD are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed with asthma.
COPD isn’t curable, but it is treatable. You can’t reverse the damage to lung tissue, but you can slow down the destruction and manage the disease.
The best thing a smoker can do is quit, and everyone should try to prevent infections. Get a flu shot and a pneumonia vaccine.
COPD is treated with bronchodilators, like albuterol, that relax airway muscles. During flare-ups, inhaled corticosteroids can reduce inflammation and decrease mucus production. Oxygen therapy can help, as can antibiotics to fight respiratory infections.
COPD happens only to older people
People are often diagnosed with COPD in their 50s and 60s. However, these diagnoses are relatively late, when symptoms are so pronounced they can no longer be ignored, says Dr. Edelman.
In fact, COPD can begin in your 40s (and in rare cases your 20s and 30s). To find out if someone has COPD, a doctor can have a patient breathe into a tube hooked up to a spirometer, which measures how much air you exhale.
It’s a simple test that the ALA would like to see more primary care doctors use to test anyone at risk for COPD, even if they don’t have symptoms, says Dr. Edelman.
Early diagnosis helps
It is crucial to catch COPD early to prevent more damage to the lungs.
Most people blame shortness of breath on aging or being out of shape. Barry Make, MD, a pulmonologist and codirector of the COPD program at National Jewish Health, in Denver, says people often realize they can’t perform activities like they used to; walking on the golf course or carrying groceries upstairs is difficult.
But some people are sensitive enough to their bodies that they might notice shortness of breath early. Another sign is "smoker’s cough," which Dr. Make says doesn’t exist; it’s chronic bronchitis.
Exercise is impossible if you have COPD
Shortness of breath can make exercise more difficult. But exercise is an important part of treating COPD.
According to Dr. Edelman, exercise doesn’t change the lungs. Instead, it improves the way the heart pumps blood and muscles take oxygen out of the blood, making the whole system more efficient.
"Your exercise capacity goes up when you do continual exercise," he says. "We believe it is important for everyone with COPD to do it—even those who are short of breath." He says that people should start slowly if need be, "even if it is lifting a can of soup for 10 minutes each day."
It’s too late to quit smoking
It is never too late to quit smoking and potentially ward off COPD, says Dr. Make.
Even if you’ve already been diagnosed with COPD, don’t give up the quitting-smoking battle. (Most smokers will tell you they thought they could never quit, but just kept trying until they finally succeeded.)
At any stage of COPD, quitting smoking will lessen your symptoms and slow COPD progression, Dr. Make says.