COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) makes it hard for you to breathe. COPD is the 7th leading cause of death among African-Americans in 2010 according to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institute of Health (NIH) provided these depressing facts:
- COPD is the 3rd leading cause of death overall in the United States and causes serious, long-term disability.
- COPD kills more than 120,000 Americans each year.
- More than 12 million people are diagnosed with COPD.
- Additional 12 million likely have the disease and don’t even know it.
The two main types are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The main cause of COPD is long-term exposure to substances that irritate and damage the lungs. Cigarette smoking is the primary cause. Air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust can also cause it. Jay Harold has a post on how smoking contributes to low birth weight babies born to black women.
How Does COPD Affect Breathing?
The “airways” are the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs through the nose and mouth. Healthy airways and air sacs in the lungs are elastic—they try to bounce back to their original shape after
being stretched or filled with air, just the way a new rubber band or balloon does. This elastic quality helps retain the normal structure of the lung and helps to move the air quickly in and out.
In people with COPD, the air sacs no longer bounce back to their original shape. The airways can also become swollen or thicker than normal, and mucus production might increase. The floppy airways are blocked, or obstructed, making it even harder to get the air out of the lungs.
At first, COPD may cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, symptoms usually become more severe. They include
- A cough that produces a lot of mucus
- Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
- Chest tightness
Treatment and Diagnosis
Doctors use lung function tests, imaging tests, and blood tests to diagnose COPD. There is no cure. COPD treatment can alleviate symptoms, decrease the frequency and severity of exacerbations, and increase exercise tolerance. For those who smoke, the most important aspect of treatment is smoking cessation. Avoiding tobacco smoke and removing other air pollutants from the patient’s home or workplace are also important. Symptoms such as coughing or wheezing can be treated with medication. Pulmonary rehabilitation is an individualized treatment program that teaches COPD management strategies to increase the quality of life. Plans may include breathing strategies, energy-conserving techniques, and nutritional counseling. The flu can cause serious problems in people with COPD. Vaccination during flu season is recommended, and respiratory infections should be treated with antibiotics, if appropriate. Patients who have low blood oxygen levels are often given supplemental oxygen. The American Lung Association has a resource page of treatment options for COPD.