COPD: What you should know

An estimated 12.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and several million more may be living with the disease and its symptoms without even knowing it, according to the American Lung Association.

November is National COPD Awareness Month — a time designated to bring and raise awareness to this chronic disease and its quality-of-life-limiting symptoms.

These symptoms include:

  • Chronic cough and phlegm production
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezy breathing
  • Chest pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent respiratory infections

COPD actually refers not to a single chronic illness, but a group of conditions that include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, among others, which can bring difficulty to everyday physical activities, such as climbing the stairs.

The difficulty associated with these tasks may prohibit those diagnosed with the condition from working or engaging in social activities and increase instances of confusion, memory loss, depression, and other emotional conditions.

COPD has also been associated with a significant increase in visits to hospitals’ emergency departments and overnight hospital stays.

Although there is no cure for the condition, treatments include medications that can slow the disease’s progression and relieve some symptoms by helping the sufferer to breathe easier — medications to open airways and reduce inflammation.

The disease, however, can progress to the point when those seriously afflicted require supplemental oxygen.

COPD, though, is a condition whose risk can be mitigated through behavioral modification and the understanding and avoidance of specific risk factors.

While it is more common in women than men, and in people over 40 years old, everyone can lower their risk for developing COPD by avoiding or quitting smoking and by avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke or areas of high air pollution.