More than a smoker’s cough, COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a serious respiratory illness. But how can you tell if you have it? Here are a few things to watch for.
Do you have a persistent cough that worries you? Wheezing or difficulty breathing that's gotten progressively worse with time? While many people can have trouble breathing at times, if you're over 40 and find yourself gasping for air frequently, you may be dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
A chronic illness, COPD is an inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow. This tightening of the lungs occurs most often in older people – especially those over the age of 60. Smokers and people who've worked with chemicals are especially at risk for developing COPD as they become older. Characterised by a wet cough which often manifests as the need to clear your throat just after waking up, COPD is a progressive condition. Yet, when diagnosed early, it is highly treatable.
In its early stages, COPD is not easy to detect during a standard medical check-up. Many people with COPD are diagnosed with acute or chronic bronchitis several times before receiving a proper COPD diagnosis.
The most commonly known factor for the development of COPD is tobacco smoke – both first and secondhand smoke. If you’ve already been diagnosed with asthma, you may have an increased risk of COPD if you smoke. Unlike asthma, COPD is a persistent and progressive condition. With COPD, your lung function remains abnormal even when you are not experiencing symptoms. It’s important to take COPD, and quitting smoking, seriously because without a proper treatment the condition affects life expectancy.
To know if your difficulty in breathing can be attributed to COPD, you can ask your doctor to administer a spirometry test to measure your air flow. Your doctor might ask you questions about your history of smoking, diet and exercise habits, as well as check for other illnesses that could contribute to a worsening of symptoms, like heart disease. They might also request further testing, including a chest X-ray, to rule out other lung problems or an arterial blood gas analysis to measure how well your lungs are removing carbon dioxide.
If you get a COPD diagnosis, your doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan to ease your symptoms. Exercise plays a crucial role in pulmonary rehabilitation. Your doctor might also suggest some breathing exercises.
The best way to start treating your COPD symptoms is to stop smoking and eliminate exposure to any fumes that could have contributed to the disease’s development. It’s also important to treat any additional conditions that can worsen the symptoms of COPD, like high blood pressure.
Your doctor may prescribe inhaled or tablet medication as part of your treatment plan. Medication may be short or long-acting bronchodilators, which assist your bronchial tubes to stay open. Part of the medication may consist of anti-inflammatories to suppress chronic inflammation. Both types of medication aim to prevent progression of the disease and worsening of your lung function.
COPD is a serious illness that isn’t reversible, but after quitting smoking and with proper treatment, diet and exercise it’s possible to keep your symptoms under control.
By Courtney Tenz
Photo by iStock
Byrne, Anthony L., Marais, Ben J., Mitnick, Carole D., Lecca, Leonid. Marks, Guy B. (2015) Risk factors for and origins of COPD. The Lancet. 385(9979): 1723-1724. May 2, 2015. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60884-4/fulltext
Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases COPD. (GOLD 2020 report). https://goldcopd.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/GOLD-2020-FINAL-ver1.2-03Dec19_WMV.pdf
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