Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a serious lung disease that primarily causes obstruction of airflow out of the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, mucus (sputum) production, cough and wheezing.
The disease affects 16 million Americans, and millions more may have the disease and not know it.
“People often don’t notice COPD until they are in the mid-stages of the disease because they attribute their difficulty breathing to age or being out of shape, but for any shortness of breath different than what you have experienced before, see your doctor,” said Charles Cory, MSHCA, RRT, respiratory therapist at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital.
In the majority of cases, a history of smoking is a leading factor in the disease. Tar from cigarettes builds-up in the lungs, and super-hot smoke destroys sensitive lung tissue. “Smoking 100 cigarettes in your lifetime can put you at risk for the disease, and can create irreversible damage to your lungs,” Cory said.
Other factors can contribute as well, such as high exposure to secondhand smoke or heavy, persistent smog. Ongoing workplace exposure to toxic fumes and smoke can also contribute to the disease.
While COPD gets worse over time and is incurable, proper medication and treatment can slow its progression.
Treatment starts by giving up smoking. “Even if you have smoked for 60 years, you will see benefits from stopping,” Cory said.
While giving up smoking is a challenge for many people, there are many successful cessation programs that offer the support needed to make quitting smoking more manageable, including Freedom From Smoking.
Additionally, people with the disease should maintain regular exercise and activities to maximize lung strength.
“Often, people think that if they have the disease they must limit or refrain from activity, but that is not helpful. You want to continue to exercise your muscles — walking is great — to improve cardiovascular health and lungs,” Cory said.
Your provider may also refer you to pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a supervised exercise and education program that takes place in a hospital gym. In those programs, exercise specialists and respiratory therapists monitor your oxygen levels as you exercise, helping you determine the right level of exercise for your condition.
Medication is a primary treatment of COPD, and includes short-acting and long-acting medications and supplemental oxygen. When prescribed, your health care provider will demonstrate the proper use of each medication and when to use them for the optimal management of the condition. At Complex Care Services, located at Samaritan Central Coast Internal Medicine in Newport, respiratory therapists provide additional education to help patients learn about inhalers, nebulizers, oxygen and more. Patients can ask their provider for a referral.
Throughout every stage of the disease the best way to improve quality of life is to take medications as prescribed, remain physically active and maintain a healthy diet, Cory noted.
“When people understand the disease and how to manage it, as well as how to properly use their medications, then a diagnosis of COPD is not necessarily as devastating as it may seem. We can help people with the disease improve the quality of their lives for years to come.”
As in most cases, catching the disease as early as possible can make a positive difference in your health. Cory recommends that if you are concerned you may have COPD it’s important to contact your doctor for an appointment.
To learn more about COPD, visit our online health library.
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