12 Must-Know Facts About COPD
What is COPD?
Many people assume that as they get older, it's normal to get short-winded climbing stairs, says Antonio Anzueto, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
In fact, shortness of breath can be a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung condition that an estimated 12 million Americans may have without knowing it (in addition to the other 12 million who have been diagnosed).
Even if you have heard of COPD, here are some surprising facts you may not know.
Emphysema is COPD
COPD isn't a single lung disease. It's really two diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing problems. It includes emphysema, which makes it hard to breathe, and chronic bronchitis, which is a mucus-producing cough that doesn't go away.
Most people with COPD have both.
Roughly one-third, or 30%, of adults don't know what COPD is, according to a 2010 survey by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Once people know they have COPDin the early stages, the symptoms can be easy to ignorethey can exercise, quit smoking, and take medication to prevent further lung damage.
"With those three things together, my patients can have an absolutely normal life," says Dr. Anzueto, who is also chair of the U.S. COPD Coalition. "This can be a treatable disease."
Pulmonary rehab is important
Programs vary widely, but they usually include breathing exercises, nutritional counseling, exercise training, and tips on conserving energy and breathing easier.
Pulmonary rehab has been shown to cut hospitalizations and death, and improve quality of life for people with recent COPD flare-ups.
Rural locations can be riskier
This may be because the disease is under-recognized in rural areas, or because hospitals in those areas lack pulmonary rehabilitation and have only a limited use of spirometry (a lung-function test).
"I recommend that patients living in rural areas discuss their breathing symptoms with their doctor and ensure that they are on the best level of treatment according to the severity of their illness," says study author Thad Abrams, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, in Iowa City.
Choose a hospital carefully
People admitted to hospitals that don't treat many COPD patients are at a higher risk of death than those at other hospitals, according to Dr. Abrams' study.
"Avoiding a hospitalization is key," Dr. Abrams says. "However, if a hospitalization is necessary, I recommend that patients with severe COPD seek out hospitals that have higher levels of pulmonary expertise and respiratory support."
Depression is common
People with COPD may be depressed because they can't function well physically, they feel isolated or useless, or they lack control over their condition.
Either way, depression can rob people of the ability to manage COPD or stick with treatment, so getting help is key.
Weight is tricky
(Here are 15 COPD healthy eating tips that may help.)
Being overweight, though, makes it harder to breathe, and may make it difficult to sleep, says Dr. Anzueto. Belly fat, in particular, is a hazard.
Harmonica lessons might help
Another popular technique is called pursed-lip breathing, and here's how to do it: Relax your neck and shoulders. Breathe in through your nose for two counts with your mouth closed. Pucker your lips. Exhale slowly through your pursed lips for four counts. Repeat four to five times a day.
Don't ignore symptoms
Evidence suggests that starting COPD treatment earlier in the course of the disease can slow its progression.
"The sooner we identify [the disease], we can start treatment, we can start interventions that can have a tremendous impact," says Dr. Anzueto.
Lung transplants are possible
You may need to enroll in pulmonary rehab before becoming a candidate.
Transplants have risks, including infections and death. There's a possibility that your body will reject the healthy donor lung.
Don't skip the oxygen
Some people feel self-conscious or annoyed that they have to wear a nasal tube and lug an oxygen tank in public. But oxygen helps maintain mental function, including memory, and can be a lifesaver.
"Out of several therapies we have for COPD, oxygen has clearly been demonstrated to decrease the risk of dying of COPD," says Dr. Anzueto.
Today's oxygen is smaller, lighter, and easier to carry. You may prefer transtracheal oxygen via a tube surgically inserted into the windpipe.
If you smoke, you must quit
Even if you already have COPD, it's important to quit. It's one of the most significant steps you can take to slow down the disease's progression.