Many people who experience symptoms like difficulty breathing, fatigue and tightness in the chest during physical activity, assume the problem stems from the heart or can be attributed to aging. In some cases, patients may actually be experiencing the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD.) Despite being the nation's 3rd leading disease-related killer, many don’t know what to expect from COPD.
COPD is a common disease of the lungs that causes emphysema or damage to the air sacs of the lungs and bronchitis, or inflammation of the airways. This can mean serious disability or early death for those affected. As many as 11 million Americans suffer from this chronic illness.
It’s crucial that those with COPD are diagnosed because lifestyle changes can make a dramatic difference in their quality of life. People with this disease often go untreated for long periods because the onset of symptoms happen slowly over time which patients may assume is a normal decline in function. Some of the symptoms to look out for that may signal COPD include shortness of breath during activity, frequent chest infections, chronic cough, chest tightness and wheezing while breathing.
Those with COPD can often inhale normally but have difficulty exhaling. This is because the elastic properties of the lungs have been damaged making it harder to clear the lungs fully. This inability to exhale oxygen-depleted air in order to inhale oxygen-rich air leads to COPD’s characteristic breathlessness.
Though many of the symptoms of COPD are similar to those of heart disease, so are the causes. Only one out of five people living with COPD was never a smoker. Persons exposed to secondhand smoke are also at an elevated risk, despite not smoking themselves. Quitting smoking can improve the health of your blood vessels within days and reduce the risk of cancer in the lungs within a few years. Unfortunately, smoking damage to the delicate tissue in the lungs is irreversible.
Other causes of COPD may include the environment in which you live. Those who live in areas with large quantities of air pollution are more likely to develop the disease. In rare cases, it may develop in persons with a rare inherited condition that prevents them from producing a protein necessary for protecting the lungs.
For this reason, doctors recommend smokers, and previous smokers alike go in for a spirometry test to check for COPD. The test is painless, fast and inexpensive. If no signs of COPD are found, it is good for you to have a baseline test on your medical record for future comparison.
The good news is that in addition to being preventable, COPD is treatable. If you are diagnosed with COPD, you will likely be prescribed bronchodilators, a mainstay of COPD therapy. You will also likely be prescribed a fitness program that includes aerobic and strength exercises to rehabilitate the lungs and help patients manage their breathlessness during daily activities.
The above video describes COPD risk factors and common symptoms in detail. In addition, the video explains how lungs with COPD function.