For the tens of millions of people affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it can be exhausting to cope with unrelenting breathing difficulties, frequent coughing, and other persistent respiratory symptoms.
Early COPD symptoms tend to emerge slowly. As a result, many people live with the condition for years before they’re properly diagnosed. This is precious time wasted, however, as early treatment offers the best opportunity for controlling symptoms, minimizing lung damage, and slowing disease progression.
Here at Fivestar Pulmonary Associates in Allen and McKinney, Texas, our seasoned team of lung experts knows that prompt diagnosis and care can make a world of difference for anyone with COPD. This means understanding the signs and risk factors of COPD, especially if you smoke.
Read on as Dr. Anthony Nebor and Dr. Asif Najmuddin discuss COPD and the factors that can increase your risk of developing it.
The term COPD refers to a group of progressive inflammatory lung-damaging diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. It occurs when less air flows through your airways for one or more of the following reasons:
- The airways and air sacs in your lungs have lost their elasticity
- The pulmonary walls between your air sacs have been destroyed
- Inflammation has thickened the walls of your lungs
- Your airways produce too much mucus and become clogged
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the most common lung diseases that contribute to the development of COPD. In fact, a COPD diagnosis often means having at least one of these lung-damaging diseases, and often symptoms of both.
This lung disease damages your air sacs (alveoli), leaving them weaker and shapeless. Alveoli play a vital role in transferring oxygen from your lungs to your blood and transporting carbon dioxide back out. Emphysema can also fully destroy the walls of your air sacs, significantly reducing the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that can be exchanged in your lungs.
Chronic bronchitis irritates the bronchial tubes which carry air into your lungs. In response, the tubes swell, causing mucus to build up along the inner lining. When the lining of your airway is perpetually irritated and inflamed, it can damage the hair-like structures (cilia) in the tubes that help clear mucus out of your airways.
COPD causes and risk factors
Most COPD cases are a result of long-term exposure to the kind of lung irritants that can damage airways. In the United States, the most common COPD-causing irritant is cigarette smoke, including secondhand smoke.
Smoking and COPD
As you might guess, the primary causes of COPD also happen to be the main risk factors. Smoking is the number-one risk factor for developing COPD and dying from it — people who smoke are at least 12 times more likely to die from COPD than those who don’t smoke.
Other risk factors
While smoking is the main risk factor and cause of COPD, several other factors can elevate your risk of developing the lung-damaging condition, including:
- Long-term exposure to air pollution or secondhand smoke
- Ongoing exposure to chemical fumes and dust on the job
- Being over the age of 65; COPD is more common with age
- Being female; women develop COPD at a higher rate than men
- Childhood history of chronic or repeated respiratory infections
- Having asthma; 20% of people with COPD also have asthma
In about 1% of COPD cases, the disease is a result of a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD). Made in your liver and secreted into your bloodstream, AAT is a protein that helps protect your lungs.
The bottom line on COPD
COPD is a major cause of disability and the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. It can make daily activities more challenging and have a negative impact on your quality of life; it can also affect your mental health and increase your risk of developing lung cancer and heart disease.
But it’s not all bad news. COPD is manageable, especially when treatment starts early. If you have a persistent cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest tightness — especially if you’re a current smoker or smoked for years in the past — it’s wise to have a comprehensive lung evaluation, including pulmonary function testing, as soon as possible.
And if you’ve never been a smoker but you’re experiencing unexplained breathing difficulties, come see us: One in four people with COPD has never smoked or been regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.
Remember, it’s always better to get to the bottom of breathing symptoms than it is to ignore them and hope they’ll go away — in the case of COPD, they’ll only get worse without care.
To learn more about COPD or to schedule an evaluation at Fivestar Pulmonary Associates, call your nearest office today, or use our online booking feature to make an appointment anytime.
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