Most of us take breathing for granted. But for 30 million
Americans-including 15 million who don't even recognize they have a problem-chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is robbing them of their ability to breathe
"COPD is the fourth leading cause of death-and
it's the most rapidly growing lethal health problem faced by our population, killing
110,000 Americans every year," says Dennis Doherty, M.D., chief of pulmonary
and critical care medicine at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.
COPD is a group of diseases that includes chronic bronchitis,
emphysema, and asthmatic bronchitis. These diseases share a common characteristic:
an obstruction to airflow out of the lungs. Shortness of breath is the most common
symptom. If you have difficulty exhaling, not enough space is left to inhale oxygen.
Symptoms of COPD
Unlike many diseases, COPD is easily prevented.
In the United States, 90 percent of COPD is attributable to smoking.
"A key sign of COPD is the feeling of not being
able to get enough air," Doherty says. "At first, you might just notice
it when exercising or exerting yourself, but later you might feel it all the
time, even when resting."
A cough after waking in the morning, wheezing, and
chronic mucus production are other common symptoms that are often minimized
or ignored. But these symptoms are present earlier in the disease, before disability
and a need for oxygen set in.
Even if you aren't showing signs, you still might
have COPD because it can be silent in its early stages.
Simple Detection Test
The best means of detection is a breathing test
called spirometry. Spirometry measures the amount of air that you can blow out
of your lungs (volume) and how fast you can blow it out (flow). In the test,
you take your deepest possible breath, then blow out as hard and fast as you
can into a machine. A quick and painless test, spirometry is often available
in a physician's office.
Patients should ask to be tested at their annual
checkup. Current and former smokers over the age of 45 should have spirometry
as part of their regular checkups, Doherty says. Others, such as people exposed
to environmental tobacco smoke or irritants in the workplace, need it too. Also,
anyone of any age with a persistent cough, mucus, wheeze, or shortness of breath
should be tested, he says.
Beware of Smoke
"If you smoke, by far the single best intervention
you can make is to quit smoking. That prevents further damage, and your rate
of lung capacity loss will return to that of a non-smoker," explains Doherty.
People with COPD need clean air, so they should avoid
smokers, heating appliances that put out fumes, and polluted air. Many medications
are available to help people with COPD breathe easier and to stop smoking.
For information on UK studies involving COPD, call
(859) 323-6176. For more information about COPD, visit the National Lung Health
Education Program Web site at www.nlhep.org.