Many of my patients—especially those who smoke, used to smoke or who live with smokers—have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. COPD refers to a group of lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that cause airflow obstruction and breathing-related problems.
A serious, sometimes fatal, lung condition
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, COPD was the fourth-leading cause of death in the US in 2016, following heart disease, cancer and unintentional injuries. It affects 16 million Americans and millions more who do not know they have it.
When a person has COPD, their airway passage narrows due to mucus build-up. This inhibits the flow of oxygen to and from the lungs, making it hard to breathe.
If untreated, COPD can lead to long-term disability, a dramatically diminished quality of life and in some cases, death. With proper management, however, most people with COPD can control their symptoms, have a good quality of life, and reduce their risk of other associated conditions including heart disease and lung cancer, says Healthline.
Smoking is the major cause of COPD but it can also be caused by:
- respiratory infections
- home and workplace air pollutants
- repeated exposure to lung irritants such as smoke, harsh chemicals or excessive dust
- genetic factors
- auto-immune disorders
Symptoms of COPD
Sadly, the symptoms of COPD generally don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred. A person with COPD may experience shortness of breath (especially climbing stairs), wheezing, a chronic cough that produces yellow sputum, chest tightness and frequent respiratory infections. They may also develop high blood pressure, heart problems, lung cancer, depression, confusion and memory loss.
Why more women than men have COPD
COPD used to be considered a man’s disease but things have changed in the last 20-30 years, according to the CDC. Women are now 37% more likely to have COPD than men. Since 2000, more women in the US have died from COPD than men, and in 2017, it was the third leading cause of death among US women.
Why does COPD affect women differently than men? The CDC gives several reasons:
- Women tend to be diagnosed later than men, when the disease is more advanced and treatment is less effective
- Women are more vulnerable to the effects of tobacco and other harmful substances, such as indoor air pollution
- Women who smoke tend to get COPD at younger ages than men, even those who smoked less than men
- Women respond to COPD treatments differently than men
5 questions you should ask your doctor about COPD
If you think you might have COPD, it’s important to visit your doctor so you can be properly diagnosed, learn how to manage and alleviate your symptoms, and possibly begin treatment. Early detection and treatment can delay progression of disease.
Here are 5 questions to keep in mind when you meet with your doctor:
What type of COPD do I have?
There are 2 types of COPD: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchi, the air pathways to the lungs. Emphysema causes destruction of the alveoli, the air sacs in your lungs. When these damaged air sacs become stretched out, the lungs actually get bigger, making it harder to breathe.
What other symptoms might develop other than shortness of breath and a cough?
If you have emphysema, you might experience wheezing and tightness of the chest. If you have chronic bronchitis, you might have a continuous cough productive of various colors of sputum (white, yellow, grey), repeated respiratory infections, and bronchospasm.
Can you get COPD from someone else?
No, COPD is not contagious and cannot be transmitted from one person to another.
How is COPD treated?
If you smoke, the best thing you can do is quit. In fact, I tell all my smoking patients this, whether or not they have COPD. There are many over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help you quit, plus every state has a QuitLine. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to be connected to the one in your area and for local resources.
In addition to quitting smoking, there are many options to treat COPD, including bronchodilators, vaccinations, inhaled steroids, antibiotics, oxygen therapy, a pulmonary rehabilitation program, or in some cases, surgery.
Is there a cure for COPD?
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for COPD. This is a disease that gets progressively worse, and the best course of action is early intervention to alleviate symptoms, and smoking cessation. As with many diseases, early detection of COPD makes managing it easier and more successful.
To learn more about COPD, you might find these resources helpful:
- COPD Foundation
- American Lung Association/COPD
- National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute/What Is COPD?
Concerned that you may have COPD? Please contact me
If you’re concerned that you may have COPD or are at risk of developing it, please call (914) 440-2555 to make an appointment to come in and see me, a pulmonology specialist with Westchester Health. I’ll examine you, perform some tests, and determine if you do indeed have COPD. If you do, I’ll evaluate the seriousness of your condition, and together we can discuss what steps to take next. Now and always, my #1 goal is to help you become as healthy as possible. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Andrea Isaacs, MD, FCCP, Pulmonologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners