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In the Know: COPD

COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. The disease is increasingly common, affecting millions of Americans, and is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. The good news is COPD is often preventable and treatable. COPD can cause coughing, which produces large amounts of a slimy substance called mucus and leads to wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. However, up to 25% of people with the disease never smoked. Exposure to prolonged second-hand smoke is another contributing factor as well as long-term exposure to other lung irritants—such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dusts. A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency can also cause the disease. If you have COPD, you also may often have colds or other respiratory infections such as the flu, or influenza. At first, COPD may cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, symptoms usually become more severe. Some severe symptoms may require treatment in a hospital. Severe symptoms include:

  • You are having a hard time catching your breath or talking.

  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray, a sign of a low oxygen level in your blood.

  • People around you notice that you are not mentally alert.

  • Your heartbeat is very fast.

  • The recommended treatment for symptoms that are getting worse is not working.

In the United States, COPD includes two main conditions—emphysema and chronic bronchitis. With emphysema, the walls between many of the air sacs are damaged. As a result, the air sacs lose their shape and become floppy. This damage also can destroy the walls of the air sacs, leading to fewer and larger air sacs instead of many tiny ones. If this happens, the amount of gas exchange in the lungs is reduced. With chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways stays constantly irritated and inflamed, and this causes the lining to swell. Lots of thick mucus forms in the airways, making it hard to breathe. COPD has no cure yet. However, lifestyle changes and treatments can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease. To assist with your treatment, your family doctor may advise you to see a pulmonologist. This is a doctor who specializes in treating lung disorders. by Gina Stallone

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