Living with COPD requires changes

Are you one of the approximately 24 million Americans diagnosed with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? Or, could you be one of the 12 million Americans that, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, suffers from COPD and does not know it?

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. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of COPD are expected to rise during the next 10 years.

The effects of COPD on the human body claim thousands of lives each year, making COPD the third highest leading cause of death in the United States, according to the institute. Those living with COPD can take small life-changing steps to regain their lifestyle and their independent living.

COPD is a combination of two 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 mucus production in the lungs. The exchange of gases in the lungs is dependant on a number of different 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; this 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 leaves the person feeling extremely short of breath and fatigued. An increase in mucus 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; however, there are general signs and symptoms that emergency personnel will look for. A cough, commonly known as “smokers cough,” may be the first sign of pulmonary functions decreasing.

Coughing up phlegm and/or mucus on a regular basis should not be taken without due consideration; this is a sign of a 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.

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 years of age and older, it can and does affect people of all ages, gender and nationality.

Some factors can put you at a higher risk of developing COPD, and by avoiding these risk factors you can greatly increase your odds of avoiding the dangers associated with COPD. Air pollutants, industrial smoke and chemicals as well as second- hand smoke will increase your odds of developing COPD. 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. 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; salt may make you retain water, making 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 www.copd.com

Brian Shea is a Boulder City paramedic/firefighter. If you have further questions about this or any fire safety issue, contact the Boulder City Fire Department at 293-9228.

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