Healthcare Tips

COPD: What Is It and Who’s at Risk?

October 25, 2021

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States in 2018. Not something to take lightly, the cluster of diseases that fall under the umbrella of COPD include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, among others. November is COPD Awareness Month, and it’s a pertinent time to learn more about this illness and what populations are the most at risk.

COPD was long thought of as a disease associated with aging men. In recent decades, however, women have overtaken men in the number of deaths due to this disease. This jump in numbers among women may be due to later diagnoses and, therefore, less effective treatments. Women also tend to be more sensitive to environmental toxins and tobacco use.

What happens to the lungs

When you have COPD, your airways become swollen, sometimes clogged with mucus and you often cough up phlegm (bronchitis). You can’t get enough fresh oxygen with each breath. You also find it difficult to push out air from your lungs. Emphysema involves damaged and enlarged air sacs, which are vital in exchanging gases. In the end, COPD basically suffocates you. It’s not an easy death.

Causes, risk factors, symptoms

In general, COPD has many causes, the most common of which is smoking. In 2019, about 34.1 million smokers were lighting up across the United States. Although the prevalence of smoking has declined, it’s still a widespread problem that leads to higher healthcare costs for all of us. Exposure to toxins such as air pollutants and secondhand smoke, genetics and respiratory infections can also lead to developing COPD. 

People aged 65 and older, those economically disadvantaged, current and former smokers, and people with a history of asthma are more likely to develop one of the diseases under the umbrella of COPD. Symptoms for all of these groups include frequent coughing or wheezing or shortness of breath. Prevalence of excess phlegm or mucus can also be a symptom as can trouble taking a deep breath. 

Just quit

Chances of getting COPD can be lessened if you stop smoking or breathing in secondhand smoke NOW. Both of these make up a huge portion of COPD diagnoses and are avoidable with healthy lifestyle changes. Environmental pollutants can also be a cause, so make sure to keep your indoor air healthy. House plants, low VOC paints, natural cleaning products and air filters can all help in keeping your home’s air clean and free of common toxins. (If you have been unsuccessful in conquering your addition to nicotine and tobacco, “Commit to Quit” classes are available locally through Healthy365.)

Is COPD treatable?

Unfortunately, COPD has no cure, but doctors implement lifestyle changes and medical treatments to help slow the progression of this disease. Depending on your diagnosis, treatments will focus on relieving symptoms, slowing progression, improving exercise tolerance, preventing and treating complications and improving overall health and wellness. Again, if you’re a smoker, quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to help your body fight COPD. 

Medications such as steroids can help with COPD symptoms, especially in combination with bronchodilators. Bronchodilators help relax the airways so breathing becomes easier; they can be either short- or long-acting. Both are taken in the form of an inhaler. Therapies include pulmonary rehabilitation and oxygen therapy. Hancock Health offers pulmonary rehabilitation as well as a “Better Breathers” support group for patients with chronic lung disease and their families. Doctors will generally prescribe vaccines for flu or pneumonia to prevent severe complications for COPD patients.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with COPD, November is the time to bring awareness to the effects and risks of this illness. Treatments and lifestyle changes can go a long way in ensuring that patients suffering from this disease are able to manage symptoms enough to maintain their quality of life for as long as possible. By sticking to the treatment plan prescribed by your doctor, you can cope with COPD to slow progression.