Wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing. Do these symptoms sound like asthma? They can actually be the warning signs of a much deadlier lung condition: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Once considered a man's disease, COPD is now a serious health burden for women.
COPD refers to two different but related lung diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Both of these conditions affect breathing. And most people with one often suffer from the other.
With chronic bronchitis, the lung's airways become inflamed. Mucus then builds up and restricts air from entering and leaving the lungs. In a person with emphysema, the lung's alveoli, or air sacs, are damaged. As blood flows through these sacs, oxygen moves into your blood and carbon dioxide is filtered out. If the sacs don't function properly, this exchange can be hindered, limiting the amount of air you breathe out.
COPD is caused by inflammation in the lungs caused by inhaling irritants for a long time. The main culprit is smoking. You can also develop COPD if you breathe in polluted air, secondhand smoke, or chemicals.
There is no cure for COPD. Symptoms of the disease gradually worsen, so you may not initially realize you have it. Once you notice the signs, they may include:
A chronic cough, often with mucus
Shortness of breath, particularly when exercising
COPD ranks behind only heart disease and cancer as the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Historically, it has afflicted more men than women — particularly adults older than age 65. But since 2000, COPD has been more common in women. Compared with men, more women die from COPD every year. What's more, they are 37% more likely to develop the disease. One study found women were more susceptible to COPD even if they started smoking later and smoked fewer cigarettes.
Why the change? A recent report from the American Lung Association cites several reasons. One is the growing popularity of smoking among women during the 1920s through the 1970s. Smoking was traditionally a man's habit. But changes in society and tobacco marketing encouraged more women to smoke. Those women who chose to light up when they were young may now be suffering from COPD.
Biology may also factor in. Women tend to have smaller lungs than men. As a result, irritants enter the lungs in higher concentrations. That may explain why more nonsmoking women than nonsmoking men develop COPD. Experts suspect women may be more susceptible to developing lung damage from irritants, such as air pollution and workplace fumes.
In women who smoke, the female hormone estrogen may further contribute to lung damage. Estrogen breaks down nicotine faster than the lungs can expel it. Over time, nicotine builds up and worsens lung damage.
November is COPD Awareness Month. Click here to find out how much you know about the disease.
American Lung Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute