Are you one of the approximately 24 million Americans diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? Could you be one of the 12 million Americans suffering from COPD and not know it?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, most commonly known by its acronym COPD, is a lung disease that can limit the well-being of your lifestyle and, if left undiagnosed and untreated, can present even more grave dangers.
Although COPD is in a 12-year decline, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COPD is expected to be on the rise during the next 10 years. The effects of COPD on the human body claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year, making COPD the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Those living with COPD can take small life-changing steps to regain their lifestyle and regain their living independence.
COPD is a combination of two different disease processes. The first, emphysema, is a pulmonary dysfunction by which the alveoli in the lungs are chronically (over a long period) weakened and destroyed. The second is the presence of chronic bronchitis.
Chronic bronchitis is described as a prolonged cough caused by an increase of mucous production in the lungs. The exchange of gases in the lungs is dependant on a number of variables, most importantly, an open airway and healthy working lung tissue to support air movement in and out of the lungs. The responsibilities of the alveoli are to maintain shape and elasticity that will allow for proper gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
As the alveoli are weakened and begin to collapse, gas exchange becomes delayed or blocked completely. This then leaves the person feeling extremely short of breath and fatigued. An increase in mucous production secondary to chronic bronchitis makes air travel to the lower lobes of the lungs and eventually to the alveoli even more difficult.
Signs and symptoms vary from person to person, and no one condition will be the same as another; however, there are general signs and symptoms that we as emergency personnel will be looking for. A cough, commonly known as “smokers cough,” may be the first sign of pulmonary functions decreasing. Coughing up phlegm and/or mucous on a regular basis should not be taken without due consideration; this is a sign of a more serious problem developing.
Shortness of breath, especially at rest or with minimal physical effort and wheezing with the feeling of a tight chest is another sign of COPD. The injury done to the lung tissue is damaging enough to make simple household tasks such as walking up and down stairs or standing and cooking meals extremely difficult. People who suffer from COPD can periodically experience extreme flare ups of their condition, commonly known as exacerbations. These flare ups will leave the patient feeling short of breath, fatigued and anxious for a few days or longer. COPD exacerbations are one of the most common 911 emergencies for the fire department and are taken with the utmost care and caution.
Although COPD is most common among persons 65 or older, it can and does affect people of all ages, genders and nationalities. Some factors can put you at a higher risk of developing COPD, and avoiding these risk factors greatly increases your odds of avoiding the dangers associated with COPD. Air pollutants, industrial smoke and chemicals as well as secondhand smoke also will increase your odds of developing COPD at any age. Quitting smoking should be the No. 1 priority of any smoker, especially those diagnosed with COPD.
To decrease the number of emergencies and to increase the overall well-being, many small changes can be made to improve your lifestyle. Pulmonary rehabilitation begins with quitting smoking; smoking is the greatest cause of COPD in all ages. If you have been diagnosed with COPD, your lung functions have already been compromised, quitting now will greatly increase your health and wellness and improve pulmonary functions.
Increase your exercise habits, including cardiopulmonary exercises and breathing exercises to increase your lungs’ functions. Learning to play the harmonica, for example, is a fun and exciting way to work on breathing exercises.
There is no cure. To make improvements in your health you will be required to make changes. Visit your doctor and follow his orders exactly. If you are prescribed oxygen, use it.
Shortness of breath begins with your body recognizing its need and demand for oxygen. Avoid foods high in sodium as salt may make you retain water and make breathing more difficult.
Lowering blood pressure and strengthening cardiac muscles will greatly improve your body’s circulation, decreasing the frequency of your COPD emergencies.
If you or someone you know is living with COPD, or may be living with COPD encourage them to make small changes. Many small changes in your daily habits can add up and improve your overall health.
If you have any additional questions or would like more information, feel free to contact the COPD Foundation at 1-866-316-COPD or online at copd.com.
Brian Shea is a Boulder City paramedic/firefighter.