COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is the name for a group of diseases that affect the airflow into our lungs. It encompasses a variety of diseases, but the three most common sub-groups are chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and refractory asthma. All of these diseases are different, but have a lot of things in common, including the fact that they will all continue to get worse over time and are incurable. There are things that you can do to mitigate the damage from COPD, but you cannot reverse damage once it has occurred.
COPD is one of the leading causes of death in the United States and affects more than 16 million people in the United States alone. This number doesn’t include those who have the disease but have not yet been diagnosed. Around the world, more than 65 million people have moderate to severe COPD.
5 Lesser-Known Facts About COPD
If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with COPD, you probably have a lot of questions. Here are some facts your doctor may not have told you.
1. It’s not just caused by smoking
COPD is caused by breathing in air that’s affected by smoke and other pollutants. About one in five chronic cigarette smokers will develop COPD. Smoking is a huge risk factor, but it can also be caused by other environmental pollutants that make their way into the lungs.
In addition to being triggered by smoke and other pollutants, doctors have found genetic factors that may put someone at risk for developing COPD. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency is the most common genetic risk factor for COPD, and doctors recommend testing for this deficiency if you’ve been diagnosed for COPD.
2. Wheezing and shortness of breath are the most common symptom
COPD is an insidious disease that can develop for years without a person realizing that they have it. One of the most common symptoms of COPD is shortness of breath, which many people consider a normal process of aging. Unfortunately, it isn’t, and by the time a doctor is brought in, damage to the lungs is already done.
If you experience any breathlessness or audible wheezing that can’t be explained another way, you should consult a doctor immediately. Some other symptoms include excess mucus production, frequently reoccurring respiratory infections, and an overall lack of energy.
3. COPD is often misdiagnosed in women
COPD is often misdiagnosed in female patients. Doctors who were faced with a patient with breathlessness only diagnosed them with COPD 49 percent of the time if the patient was female. If the patient was male, that percentage jumped to 64.6 percent. This misdiagnosis may be because women with COPD tend to contract it younger than their male counterparts, so doctors aren’t prepared to see an otherwise healthy 40 or 50-year-old with COPD. It’s also thought that the smaller size of women’s airways made them more vulnerable to the effects of COPD. A study done in 2005 suggested that the number of female COPD patients was on track to double by 2015.
4. COPD is incurable
While doctors can’t reverse the damage from COPD, it is possible to mitigate the damage being done and vastly improve your quality of life.
There are tons of options for treatment, depending on your individual diagnosis. The goals of treatment are to relieve symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and prevent complications. The most important step in treating COPD is quitting smoking or removing yourself from situations where you’re exposed to smoke and other irritants. Your doctor may prescribe medication or work with a physical therapist to create a pulmonary rehabilitation plan for you. In some cases, surgery to remove damaged tissue or replace the lungs entirely may be an option.
5. Early diagnosis helps
So many people live with COPD for years without realizing it. If you have any of the common symptoms, including breathlessness, wheezing, or a lack of energy, it’s important to take these seriously. Early diagnosis allows your doctor to begin treating symptoms immediately, which means an improvement to your quality of life. The more energy and lung power you’re able to retain, the better your chances at maintaining a physical fitness routine that keeps your health on track.
5 Myths About COPD
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about COPD. Although it’s a common disease, it tends to attract a lot of misinformation because it’s so prevalent.
Here are some common myths about COPD you should know.
1. COPD is rare
Unfortunately, COPD is not rare. It affects 65 million people around the world, and more than three million people die on a yearly basis because of COPD and related complications. The reason you may not have heard of COPD before is that it’s a category that encompasses a few lung-related conditions, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory asthma.
2. COPD only affects smokers
While smokers are a huge subset of people who are regularly diagnosed with COPD, this disease doesn’t just affect smokers. One in five chronic smokers will be diagnosed with COPD, but it can also occur in people who have regular contact with harmful irritants and environmental pollutants. In the developing world, people who regularly cook over an open fire often develop COPD from the fumes. Even if you’re not a smoker, you may still be vulnerable if you’re regularly exposed to second-hand smoke.
3. Only older people are affected by COPD
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD is most often diagnosed in patients that are older than 40 years old. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s only seniors that are affected by this disease.
People who are in a high-risk environment or have genetic risk factors are more likely to develop COPD between the ages of 20 and 30. People who are young and experiencing symptoms may not consult a doctor because they don’t believe that they could have this disease, and consequently let it go untreated. COPD may not affect your day-to-day life as much when you’re young, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t causing permanent, irreparable damage.
4. A diagnosis of COPD is the equivalent of a death sentence
Many people who are diagnosed with COPD are deeply afraid because they feel like the disease is a death sentence. Fortunately, with the advent of modern medicine, there are lots of treatment options available. Even once COPD has progressed to an advanced stage, there are still effective options to improve quality of life and mitigate the ongoing damage.
A study done in 2009 confirmed that life expectancy was more affected by smoking than a COPD diagnosis. In fact, men with COPD who smoked regularly died, on average, 5.8 years earlier than their counterparts who also had COPD but did not smoke.
5. Once you’re diagnosed with COPD, you’ll never exercise again
Exercising when you’re experiencing shortness of breath and wheezing is difficult. However, exercise is an important aspect of any COPD treatment and is integral to maintaining overall health and combating complications. Your doctor may want to refer you to a physical therapist, who can help you develop an exercise routine that works for you. Even 10 minutes a day can make a huge difference to your overall health.