As the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease, cancer and stroke, it would seem that most people would make sure they understand chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, even though more than 24 million people live with COPD — many of them without even realizing — it’s a widely misunderstood disease.
The simplest explanation of COPD is that it is a disease, or combination of diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that cause restricted airflow into the lungs. People with COPD generally experience shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, coughing and excess sputum production. Although COPD can be caused by genetic or environmental factors, it’s most commonly a result of smoking.
Because COPD is a chronic condition, it’s usually managed rather than cured. Lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking, are usually part of the treatment plan, but the most common treatments include bronchodilators, inhaled steroids that improve lung function by reducing inflammation to open restricted airways and oxygen therapy. In extreme cases, lung transplant surgery is necessary to restore healthy breathing.
Given COPD’s severity — and the fact so many people don’t even realize they have the condition — it’s important to clear up a few common myths.
Only Men Get COPD
One of the most common misconceptions about COPD is that it strikes more men than women. The truth is, though, COPD affects both men and women. In fact, currently more women are living with COPD than men.
COPD and Asthma Are the Same
It’s easy to see why many people confuse COPD and asthma or think they are the same disease. After all, the two conditions share many symptoms, including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. However, asthma sufferers tend to have symptoms — known as attacks — only when triggered by environmental factors such as poor air quality, allergens or even stress. In contrast, COPD patients have symptoms every day, which significantly influences their quality of life.
If I Have COPD, I Can’t Exercise
The chances of someone with COPD successfully running a marathon are slim. However, living with this disease does not mean you’re relegated to the sidelines — or that you have an excuse to be sedentary. Doctors actually recommend people with COPD engage in light exercise to improve their lung function and reduce the effects of their condition. You may feel better hanging out on the couch and resting, but you’re doing more harm to yourself that way. Talk to your doctor about joining a pulmonary rehabilitation program or an appropriate exercise regimen that can help you improve your breathing and reduce your symptoms.
Everyone Gets Short of Breath as They Age
While it’s true the natural aging process can impact our lives, most people don’t develop shortness of breath for no reason. If you feel like you’re having trouble breathing even when engaging in your usual activities, such as climbing the stairs, or you have other symptoms, talk with your doctor. Again, doctors suspect there are millions of Americans living with COPD who don’t realize it. By just chalking up your symptoms to age, you could be hurting yourself.
Keep in mind as well that while most COPD patients are diagnosed in their 50s or 60s, symptoms can begin appearing in your 40s — or even earlier if you are a heavy smoker. That is why it is so important to see a doctor as soon as you have any symptoms, as earlier detection and treatment could limit the severity of the damage to your lungs.
The Damage Is Done — Why Quit Smoking?
Some COPD patients justify their continued smoking habit by noting that the damage has already been done to their lungs. Why bother giving up their cigarettes? Granted, kicking the habit isn’t going to magically cure your COPD, but it will prevent further damage and make treatments more effective. Not to mention, smoking increases your risk for a number of other health conditions, including several types of cancer.
Left untreated, COPD can cause high blood pressure and heart disease. It also increases the risk of complications due to common illnesses like the flu and pneumonia or even the common cold. By understanding the disease and its symptoms, and seeking treatment as soon as possible, you can limit COPD’s effects on your pulmonary system and your life. Just because you have COPD doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy everything you once did. It simply means that you need to make adjustments, make your health a priority and focus on maintaining your quality of life. If you do that, you can still live a long, fulfilling life — even with COPD.
Cigarette and x-ray image by Theeradech Sanin on freedigitalphotos.netAbout the Author: A respected physician, Dr. Rodney Sewell has devoted his career to educating patients about healthy living and avoiding chronic disease.