According to the American College of Chest Physicians, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death in the world. In the U.S., the CDC lists chronic low respiratory disease as the third leading cause of death among U.S. adults ages 55 and older. COPD encompasses several lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, all of which make it difficult to breathe. In the majority of COPD cases, smoking is the main culprit.
COPD develops slowly. People often don't seek care for it and aren't diagnosed until their 50s, when the disease has already affected their lung function and their lungs have been irreparably damaged.
COPD symptoms include a persistent cough with phlegm, fatigue, shortness of breath (especially during exertion), wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe), and chest tightness. These symptoms are often confused with asthma or thought of as a normal part of aging. Nevertheless, not everyone who has a persistent cough or phlegm develops COPD, and not everyone with COPD has a cough, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Although it is impossible to undo the lung damage caused by COPD or halt the disease altogether, diligent management of symptoms and lifestyle changes can slow its progression. First, an accurate diagnosis is needed.
Experts recommend a spirometry test for people who have COPD symptoms or who are at risk for COPD because of smoking and other risk factors. Spirometry, an easy, painless test, shows how well your lungs are working. For the test, you breathe hard into a large hose connected to a spirometer machine. When you breathe out, the machine measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you exhale after a deep breath.
An abnormal reading is any value lower than the predicted value for you; the predicted value is based on your age, height, ethnicity, and gender. Other tests used for diagnosing COPD include bronchodilator reversibility testing, chest X-ray, and arterial blood gas.
If you are diagnosed with COPD, your health care provider will work with you to relieve symptoms, improve your ability to exercise, slow progression of the disease, and prevent complications. If you smoke, you should quit. Talk with your health care provider about methods you can use to quit smoking.
Treatment is based on whether your symptoms are mild, moderate, or severe. Your doctor may prescribe inhaled or oral corticosteroids, inhaled short- or long-acting bronchodilators, oral bronchodilators, or a combination of these medicines. Antibiotics may be needed periodically.
Your health care provider may also have you enroll in a pulmonary rehab program. Rehab programs include exercise, disease management training, and counseling.
You should take steps to reduce your chances of developing a lung infection. These include washing your hands regularly, avoiding people who have respiratory infections, getting a pneumonia shot, and an annual flu shot.