COPD: Learn More, Breathe Better

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) refers to a group of lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe. Millions of people have COPD, and many more people may have it without knowing. November is COPD Awareness Month, and in observance, we’ve compiled some important facts about this serious disease.

What is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called COPD, is the third leading cause of death in the United States. While COPD refers to a group of lung diseases, the two most common conditions that fall under the COPD umbrella are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD gets progressively worse with time, and the damage it causes to the lungs unfortunately cannot be reversed, but there are treatments that can help manage the symptoms and prevent further damage.

What causes COPD?
It’s probably not surprising to hear that smoking puts you at risk for COPD — it occurs most frequently in people over the age of 40 who smoke or have smoked in the past. But that’s not the only cause, and as many as 1 in 6 people with COPD have never smoked. Long-term exposure to chemicals, fumes, dust, and pollutants at work can also increase your risk for COPD, as can long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or air pollution. And in some people, a genetic condition can cause them to get COPD even without smoking or exposure to pollutants.

What are the symptoms of COPD?
Constant coughing, an unusual shortness of breath that occurs during normal activities, feeling like you can’t breathe or can’t take a deep breath, wheezing, and excessive production of sputum, mucus or phlegm are all potential signs of COPD. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, check with your doctor. You may need to see a pulmonologist, or lung specialist. See your doctor even if the symptoms are mild — remember, COPD gets worse over time.

What should I do if I have COPD?
Having COPD means that you’ll need to take extra precautions against the flu and other seasonal illnesses like colds. Get a flu shot every year. Quit smoking, if you haven’t already, and limit your exposure to secondhand smoke and other air pollutants or fumes that could irritate your lungs. Check the daily air quality reports for your area, and try to stay inside as much as possible on bad air quality days.

Another important part of living with COPD is to follow up regularly with your primary care doctor — even if you are feeling fine — so that he or she can perform routine tests and monitor how you’re doing. When you visit your doctor, make sure that you bring a list of all of the medicines you take. Ask your doctor if it’s a good idea for you to get other vaccines, like a pneumonia vaccine, in addition to a flu shot. Do your best to stay active — if you’re having trouble, ask your doctor about exercises you can do that can help you get stronger and breathe easier.

COPD can have a big impact on your lifestyle, but it’s still possible to live a normal life with COPD. Catching symptoms early is important for making sure that you’re able to continue to enjoy your favorite activities.

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