Imagine running a marathon while breathing through a small coffee stirrer straw. This is how many people living with advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) describe how it feels to walk across a room.

Unfortunately, struggling to breathe, frequent coughing and wheezing, and difficulty doing once simple household tasks are problems people with COPD know all too well. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16 million Americans, who have been diagnosed, feel this way. However, this number should be much larger as there are millions of others with COPD who have not been diagnosed and are not being treated.

November is National COPD Awareness Month, and with one death due to COPD every four minutes, spreading awareness is crucial. To do this, Jeannie Deal, Director of Respiratory Care for Iredell Health System, shares more about the disease and the importance of early detection.

Though Deal frequently encounters COPD working in respiratory care, the disease has more of a personal, special importance to her than just of that through her profession.

“My grandmother had COPD when I was younger. Later in life, both my parents were diagnosed with COPD. My mother recently passed away from complications of end-stage COPD, and my father does daily home treatments for the maintenance of his COPD,” said Deal.

“There is no cure for COPD, only treatments and maintenance. Awareness of COPD helps the community understand the risks, signs, and symptoms. It may help people seek treatment sooner and live a healthier, more productive life,” she added.

Although COPD is irreversible, early detection and treatment can help alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. So, what exactly is COPD, and how does a person get it?

What is COPD?
“COPD is an umbrella term used to describe many lung diseases, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory (severe) asthma. COPD causes less air to flow in and out of the airways inside the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe,” said Deal.

Many people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

COPD is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. The disease can interfere with your ability to work, do chores, and sleep. It can also affect your heart, decreasing its ability to pump blood effectively. It is a major cause of disability and a leading cause of death in the United States.

“You can actually have COPD and not know it. It can develop slowly, and most are not aware they have it until they are in their late 40s or older,” said Deal.

Who is at risk?
The majority of COPD cases are caused by smoking. Even secondhand smoke can cause COPD or make it worse. In fact, according to the CDC, smoking accounts for 8 out of 10 COPD-related deaths.

Other risk factors include exposure to air pollution and working with chemicals, dust, and fumes.

“Those who work in jobs where they are exposed to chemicals, paint fumes, and dust, like furniture and hosiery workers, or those who work outside with chemicals and dust, should always wear a high-quality mask or designated respirator,” said Deal.

What are the symptoms?
According to Deal, common symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chronic cough (that frequently produces mucus)
  • Lack of energy
  • Chest tightness
  • Frequent respiratory infections

Initial signs and symptoms of COPD may be subtle. You may disregard your cough as a typical smoker’s cough or think your shortness of breath and lack of energy is due to being out of shape and growing older.

However, it’s important to report any symptoms of COPD to your provider, as early detection is vital to slow progression and begin treatment. You can ask your provider for a pulmonary function test to measure how well your lungs are working and check periodically for COPD. The respiratory department at Iredell Memorial Hospital can perform this test.

People with COPD may also experience occasional flare-ups where symptoms are more intense. These flare-ups are normally caused by respiratory infections or colds and could land you in the hospital.

What are the treatment options?
Though there is no cure for COPD, there are treatment options available to alleviate symptoms. Firstly, if you smoke, quit. Quitting smoking will help slow the disease progression. You may also consider changing jobs if you work in an area that exposes you to fumes or chemicals that irritate your lungs.

“Avoiding the amount of time an individual is exposed is always the best way to help prevent or manage COPD,” said Deal.

According to Deal, other treatment options for COPD may be prescribed by your provider. These treatments include:

  • Bronchodilators, such as albuterol, that you can take as an inhaler or nebulizer
  • Oral steroids
  • Inhaled steroids
  • Supplemental oxygen

You may also consider asking your provider about a referral to Iredell Health System’s cardiopulmonary rehabilitation program. Pulmonary rehab includes exercise and education that will help you take charge of your COPD so you can function better in daily life.

COPD can be very serious, even deadly, and early detection is key. If you are having symptoms of COPD, make sure to schedule an appointment with your primary care provider to discuss your concerns and get treatment early.

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