Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, isn’t a single disease with a single set of symptoms. COPD is a name that broadly describes several progressive lung diseases, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory (non-reversible) asthma. People with COPD generally have more than one of these diseases at the same time.
While many people with COPD dismiss their symptoms as a normal part of aging, it’s important to identify when you should seek medical help. Though COPD is a progressive disease with no cure, treatment can help improve and elongate quality of life.
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This disease can exist in the body for years without manifesting COPD warning signs. However, early detection of the disease can help preserve lung function and prevent damage. When symptoms do appear, they most often include an ongoing cough that produces a great deal of mucus, as well as pain and tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and a wheezing sound when breathing, all of which are worsened by physical activity. You may also get sick more often with colds and flu.
Because these symptoms so closely mimic those of other conditions, COPD can be difficult to diagnose. Talk with your doctor if you’re experiencing the symptoms above, or visit the emergency room if you have severe difficulty breathing or talking, a blue or gray tinge to the nails, rapid heartbeat, or confusion.
If your doctor suspects you have COPD, he or she will perform a test called spirometry. This involves blowing into a special tube that analyzes your lung function. You’ll also have a complete medical exam as well as a chest X-ray.
The most important thing to do if you have COPD is to quit smoking. Using tobacco exacerbates the symptoms of COPD and speeds its progression. Your doctor will prescribe medications that open your airways and make it easier to breathe. Severe COPD is often treated with oxygen therapy. Your doctor may also refer you to pulmonary rehabilitation, where you’ll learn about steps you can take to control the disease.
While COPD is severe, it’s also preventable. The disease is caused by smoking, with more than half of smokers over 60 developing COPD. The longer you’ve been smoking and the more often you smoke, the higher your risk for COPD. It’s also more common in those with a family history of the disease, those with asthma, and those who were born prematurely.
If you’re concerned about your risk for COPD or think you may have symptoms, talk with your doctor right away. The disease progresses, so you should start treatment as soon as possible. In the meantime, quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do for your lung health.