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November 24, 2021

The Warning Signs of COPD

What you know can help you breathe easier.

You’ve probably seen the ads for various chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) drugs. But if you aren’t one of the millions affected, you may not know much about the disease. 

The numbers are, well, breathtaking.

  • 16 million people have been diagnosed
  • Millions more are unaware they are in the early stages
  • It is the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S.
What is it?

COPD is actually a group of diseases with one thing in common: airflow is restricted to the lungs making it difficult to breathe. Emphysema, chronic bronchitis and refractory asthma all fall under COPD.

Who is at risk?

According to the CDC the following groups are more at risk of developing COPD.

  • Women
  • People aged 65 to 74 years and over 75 years
  • American Indians, Alaska Natives and multiracial non-Hispanics
  • People who were unemployed, retired, or unable to work
  • People with less than a high school education
  • People who are divorced, widowed, or separated
  • Current or former smokers
  • People with a history of asthma
What to look for.

Early-stage symptoms can be so slight that they go unnoticed–meaning many people often don't learn they have COPD until it has progressed. Typical early symptoms include:

  • Persistent cough (with or without mucus)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in chest

Later stage symptoms include:

  • Wheezing or squeaking 
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Frequent colds or flu
  • Blue fingernails
  • Low energy
  • Losing weight without trying 
  • Swollen ankles feet, or legs
What to do if you suspect COPD.

See a doctor! Tell your physician your symptoms. If you smoke, have a history of asthma or your occupation has exposed you to chemicals, smoke or dust, share the details with your doctor. 

What to expect.

Your physical exam will likely include a spirometry test–a device you blow into that measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can exhale. Based on your initial exam, your doctor may order further testing, including: 

  • Chest X-rays 
  • CT scan
  • Arterial blood gas test (measures lung function at bringing in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide)
What is the treatment?

There is no cure, but COPD is treatable. Depending on your symptoms and stage of progression your medical plan could include:

  • Bronchodilators, which are inhaled medications to open your airways 
  • Coricosterioids as inhalers or pills to reduce airway inflammation
  • Combination inhalers that pair steroids with a bronchodilator
  • Antibiotic regimen to fight bacterial infections
  • Roflumilast (Daliresp) to stop enzyme PDE4, which prevents flare-ups in people whose COPD is linked to chronic bronchitis.
  • Flu or pneumonia vaccines to lower your risk of respiratory illnesses
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, a program of exercise, disease management, and counseling 
  • Oxygen therapy to reduce shortness of breath, protect your organs, and enhance your quality of life.
  • Surgery 
What you can do right now to breathe easier.
  1. If you smoke, there’s no time like the present for quitting. It’s the #1 cause of COPD.
  2. If your job exposes you to smoke, dust or chemicals, always wear the approved protective gear. 
  3. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, call your doctor!

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