“If I’d known I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Life sometimes has a way of surprising you, especially when it sneaks up on you gradually. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is one of those health issues that can sneak up on you. Many people don’t recognize the symptoms of COPD until later stages of the disease. Often, people think they are simply short of breath or less able to go about their normal activities because they are “just getting older.”
Chronic bronchitis and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are chronic inflammatory lung diseases that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. They along with Emphysema makes it difficult to breathe. These diseases are increasingly common and are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Symptoms can include:
- Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
- Chronic cough
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Producing a lot of mucus (also called phlegm or sputum)
- Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities (dyspnea)
- Swelling in ankles, feet or legs
Unfortunately, COPD symptoms often don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred, and it usually worsens over time.
The main cause of COPD in the U.S. is tobacco smoking, but other risk factors include long-term exposure to chemical fumes, vapors and dusts in the workplace (which can irritate and inflame your lungs), exposure to fumes from burning fuel and age (usually at least 40 years old or older). Another cause that is not discussed frequently is chronic acid reflux from the stomach.
Lungs rely on a natural elasticity force air out of your body when you exhale. COPD causes them to lose their elasticity and over expand, which leaves some air trapped in your lungs.
COPD can cause many complications. People with COPD are more likely to catch colds, flu and pneumonia. Any kind of respiratory infection can make it more difficult to breathe and can cause further damage to lung tissue. For reasons that aren’t fully understood, COPD can also increase your risk of heart disease, including heart attack. As you might expect, people with COPD have a higher risk of developing lung cancer. High blood pressure can also be a factor – COPD may cause high blood pressure in the arteries that bring blood to your lungs (called pulmonary hypertension). Chronic problems like COPD can also take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Breathing difficulties can prevent you from doing activities that you enjoy and dealing with serious illness can contribute to the development of depression.
Not everyone with COPD has the same symptoms and treatments may differ from person to person. There are a variety of medications used to treat COPD and there is no “best medicine” for all people. Some of the approaches to treatment include pulmonary rehabilitation programs, which typically combine education, exercise training, nutrition advice and counseling for rebuilding strength; supplemental oxygen, and in some very severe COPD cases, doctors may suggest lung surgery to improve breathing. Not everyone is a candidate for lung surgery.
The good news is COPD is often preventable and treatable. Unlike some diseases, COPD has a clear cause and a clear path of prevention. As noted, the majority of COPD cases are related to cigarette smoking, and the best way to prevent COPD is to never smoke — or to stop smoking right now. Of course, it’s easy for anyone to say, “just quit,” and the reality is much harder. It’s very important to find a “stop smoking” program that can help you quit for good. It’s your best chance for preventing damage to your lungs. If your workplace includes exposure to chemical fumes and dust, talk to your supervisor about the best ways to protect yourself (e.g., using personal protective equipment, adding extra ventilation, etc.).
Please know that COPD is a progressive disease. Treatment and lifestyle modifications are mandatory if one wishes to slow the progression and thus improve the symptoms of this disease. With proper management, most people with COPD can achieve good symptom control and quality of life, as well as reduced risk of other related health conditions.
Remember, don’t wait for symptoms to become severe, because valuable treatment time could be lost. Early detection is key to successful treatment.
About Michael Reiner, M.D.
Dr. Reiner listens to his patients, and that takes time. Once patients see him, they know he cares, they know he’s been listening and they know he’s been paying attention. Visiting Dr. Reiner is like waiting in line for your favorite restaurant. You are not happy about the wait, but it is all forgotten when you get to enjoy your meal.
Michael Reiner, M.D. has been a doctor of family medicine for 35 years, nearly 20 of them dedicated to serving the Pahrump community. He received a degree in biology with high honors at the University of Texas at Austin, earned his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and completed his residency at Denver Presbyterian Saint Luke’s Hospital in Colorado. For more information, visit: reinermedical.com.