Health Care

The Silent Epidemic: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

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If you’re over 40 and have a lingering cough, you might brush it off as a normal part of aging. But it can indicate a serious lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

According to the American Lung Association, COPD affects more than 12 million Americans — and millions more are living with the condition and don’t know it yet. That’s why COPD is often called the silent epidemic — and why you should talk to your doctor if you experience any symptoms lasting longer than two weeks.

About COPD

COPD is a progressive lung disease, meaning it gets worse over time. It includes two conditions:

  • Emphysema develops when the walls between the lungs’ air sacs are damaged, making it harder for your lungs to move air out of your body.
  • Chronic bronchitis is caused by repeated or constant inflammation of the lining of your airways.

Most people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms of COPD

Often, a long-lasting cough that produces mucous is the first symptom of COPD.

COPD can also cause:

  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing

In general, symptoms develop slowly but get worse over time. It’s also important to note that triggers, such as tobacco smoke or chemical fumes, can worsen symptoms.

Risk Factors for COPD

COPD most often affects those who either currently smoke or have smoked. While not everyone who develops the disease has a history of smoking, it is a factor in approximately 70 percent of cases, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Refraining from smoking is one of the best ways to prevent the condition.

In addition to cigarette smoking, risk factors for COPD include:

  • A family history of COPD
  • A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency or a family history of AAT deficiency
  • Age, with most symptoms developing in people who are 40 or older
  • Asthma
  • Long-term exposure to air pollution, occupational chemicals and secondhand smoke

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also show that COPD is twice as common in rural areas, which researchers say may be because more people in rural parts of the country smoke cigarettes and are exposed to secondhand smoke.

Treatment Options for COPD

There’s no cure for COPD. However, diagnosing it early — typically with a spirometry test that measures how much air you breathe out — means treatment can begin sooner, which may prevent you from losing additional lung function.

Treatments for COPD include:

  • Medicines including bronchodilators, which help relax the muscles in the lungs and widen the airways or a combination of bronchodilators and steroids
  • Oxygen therapy, which delivers supplemental oxygen
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a supervised program for people with chronic lung conditions to learn exercises and breathing techniques
  • Surgery, including a potential lung transplant to improve quality of life

Making lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, also may help. Quitting smoking is the most helpful step you can take to slow the progression of the disease.

Breathe Easier With Expert Care

COPD is manageable with proper care. If you have COPD and want to discuss your treatment options, our providers can guide you and help you care for your condition.

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