What is COPD?

| Posted On Nov 15, 2011 | By:

Are you a smoker?  Do you feel you cannot be as active as you used to be?  Do you get short of breath when you do something strenuous?  Do you cough every morning?  Do you get frequent episodes of coughing illnesses during the winter?  These may be the early signs of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease or COPD, a progressive but treatable lung disease.  

As we age, we normally lose lung capacity, but smokers lose lung capacity at a much more rapid rate and generally feel symptoms of this at an earlier age.  Smokers typically attribute early symptoms to being out of shape or aging, and they can be too embarrassed to discuss their symptoms because they smoke.  As a result, smokers often don’t report their symptoms until they have lost a significant amount of lung capacity.

COPD, therefore, often goes undiagnosed until people are in their 60’s or 70’s, when individuals may already have lost a significant amount of lung function and have entered a more severe stage of the disease.  However, the disease can be diagnosed in people in their 50’s, when the disease is in the early or mild stages, by performing a lung function test called spirometry.  Spirometry is a relatively easy, in-office breathing test that can be performed in most adult internal medicine offices. Maybe it is time to ask your doctor to perform a spirometry test for you.

A history of smoking accounts for 90% of COPD cases, but not all smokers will develop COPD.  It is not possible at this time to predict which smokers will and will not develop COPD, but research is being done to try to uncover this.   We do know that smoking cessation is the only action that can prevent the progression of COPD.  Smokers who quit will not regain their loss of lung function, but the rate of decline will return to the rate associated with normal aging, instead of the accelerated rate loss of those who continue to smoke.

There are multiple options now available to help people to quit smoking, including medication, group support, telephone support and individual counseling.  Individuals may also consider hypnosis or acupuncture as methods to assist them to quit.  The more you practice quitting, the better your success of actually quitting will be.  Ask your health care provider about the possible options and enlist your friends and family to help you quit.  Your provider is there to help you stay healthy and to support your attempts to quit successfully, not to make judgments about your behavior.

If you do have COPD and are on medication, you are likely using one or more inhalers.  Be sure you are taking your medications properly so you can get the most benefit from their use.  Show your doctor or health provider how you use your inhalers and have him or her review with you the proper technique.  Be sure to get a pneumonia immunization and get your influenza vaccine annually.  If you get sick with a respiratory infection or you notice your symptoms worsening, be sure to call your provider early in the illness for treatment in order to avoid a hospitalization.  Ask questions frequently and be an active participant in your health care.

If you want more information about smoking cessation or COPD, Atrius Health offers classes about COPD.  You can also visit the American Lung Association website or www.goldcopd.org.  The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Jewish Hospital also have a great deal of patient information available about COPD.

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About Lynne Markinac, NP

Lynne Busam Markinac, NP, works in internal medicine and is also the Associate Nurse Leader for Urgent Care at Harvard Vanguard Wellesley. She has been an adult nurse practitioner for more than 30 years and worked in the fields of COPD and asthma for 16 years. Lynne developed the COPD Management Program at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates.

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