Don’t let COPD take your breath away

January 17, 2011 By Curtland Brown, M.D.

If you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you know how every breath can be a struggle. COPD, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, occurs when chronic bronchitis or emphysema causes an airway obstruction, making it harder to get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.
In 90 percent of COPD cases, cigarette smoking is the cause. Other causes include on-the-job exposure to dust and chemicals and a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

COPD can be difficult to catch early. It develops slowly, so symptoms may not appear until middle age, when the lungs have usually already suffered significant damage. Over time, the following symptoms worsen:
• cough that won't go away
• cough accompanied by mucus
• shortness of breath or wheezing
• chest tightness
• recurring respiratory infections

If you have any of these symptoms, see your healthcare provider promptly. He or she can perform breathing tests to rule out other conditions, such as asthma, and confirm COPD.

While you can't undo lung damage, you can reduce symptoms. If you smoke, your doctor will urge you to quit—which can help keep your condition from worsening. Drugs like bronchodilators and inhaled steroids can help ease respiration, and antibiotics can help fight infections that aggravate COPD.
For moderate to more severe cases, additional measures such as portable oxygen tanks, rehabilitation programs or surgery to remove damaged portions of the lung may be recommended.

You do have some control over how you feel. Try these COPD self-help measures:
• Control breathing. Ask your healthcare provider about relaxation and breathing techniques to help maximize your airflow.
• Keep airways clear. Drink plenty of fluids, especially on hot summer days.
• Exercise. A regular workout can help increase fitness and improve breathing.
• Eat healthfully. Nutritious foods can help you maintain your strength and control excess weight that can make it harder to breathe.
• Treat GERD. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the back flow of acid can worsen COPD. Talk to your healthcare provider about GERD treatments.
• See your healthcare provider regularly. He or she needs to monitor your lung function, even if you're feeling OK.

Despite taking precautions, you can still suffer episodes of COPD exacerbation. It's important to seek prompt medical treatment if your symptoms suddenly worsen because it can lead to lung failure.

Curtland Brown, M.D., is a pulmonologist at The Hospital of Central Connecticut.