Many of us have experienced getting a little winded going up a flight of stairs. This may be because we are not quite in the shape we used to be – or would like to be. But for people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, even climbing a single flight of stairs can be a challenge.
If you have COPD, the airways of your lungs get inflamed, with thicker walls and narrower channels than usual, and the parts of your lungs where oxygen enters and carbon dioxide leaves your blood (called alveoli) are destroyed. Your body works harder to get air in and out of your lungs and oxygen to your body.
You can experience a chronic cough and shortness of breath. Inflammation causes wheezing and increased mucus in your airways, increasing your risk of chest infections. When severe, COPD can cause persistently low oxygen levels, causing blue lips and fingernail beds and fatigue. All of these things can make it more difficult to recover from a cold or the flu. Even though I recommend an influenza vaccine to all my patients, I especially recommend it to patients with COPD.
In the United States, 85 to 90 percent of people with COPD develop it because of cigarette smoking. COPD is a sneaky disease. You are damaging to your lungs long before you have any noticeable or inconvenient symptoms. The best thing you can do to prevent COPD or slow it from getting worse is to stop smoking.
Other things that can contribute to COPD are chronic exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke and high levels of dust. We should all work to reduce our exposure to these things to protect our health. I’ve had many patients develop COPD because their spouses were smokers who frequently smoked in the house.
Once you have COPD, it cannot be cured. But you can take steps to help keep it from getting worse and improve your quality of life. If you smoke, quit. It is never too late to quit smoking to slow down the damage to your lungs. I have had many patients who looked like they were at death’s door but when they stopped smoking, they went on to live many years. The American Lung Association and the national tobacco quitline both offer resources to help you quit.
Medication often plays an important role in the treatment of COPD. Taken at the proper time, medication can make it easier to breathe, do more activities you enjoy, and help prevent flare-ups (also called exacerbations). There are many medicines available for daily treatment of COPD. Different medications are used to treat COPD flare-ups. Bacterial lung infections, which can trigger a flare-up, are treated with antibiotics.
I also find that pulmonary rehabilitation can help patients with COPD enjoy life more. This can include education, exercise, nutrition advice and counseling. It may seem counterintuitive that exercise can help with COPD, but gradually getting more physically fit after being diagnosed with COPD can help you better manage your disease and enjoy a better quality of life.
In more severe cases of COPD, a person who is not getting enough oxygen even with treatment can use supplemental oxygen to function more normally, improve sleep and mood, increase alertness and stamina and prevent heart failure. COPD can lead to heart failure because your heart has to work harder to get oxygen to all the cells in your body.
If you think you might have COPD, see your health care provider. Although it can’t be cured, it can be slowed down and managed.
Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center.
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