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I have struggled with shortness of breath for several years now. I just thought I was experiencing normal aging and had put on a bit of weight, but a friend recently told me about COPD. Could I have COPD and not know it?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that affects an estimated 30 million Americans, but about half of them may not know they have it.
Many people mistake shortness of breath as a normal part of aging or a result of being out of shape, but that is not necessarily the case. COPD, a term used to describe a variety of lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, develops slowly so symptoms may not be obvious until damage has occurred.
Symptoms can include an ongoing cough, a cough that produces a lot of mucus, lack of energy, shortness of breath, blue lips or fingernails, swelling in your feet, ankles or legs, wheezing or chest tightness.
Those most at risk are smokers, former smokers over age 40 and people who have had long-term exposure to other lung irritants such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes or dust. There is also a rare genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency that can increase the risks.
If you are experiencing any symptoms, you should consult with your doctor about getting tested. A simple breathing test called spirometry can tell if you have COPD, and if so, how severe it is. Early screening can also identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs. If you do have COPD, there are things you can do to help manage symptoms and protect your lungs from further damage.
Quit smoking: If you smoke, the best thing you can do to prevent more damage to your lungs is to quit. Ask your doctor about prescription anti-smoking drugs that can help reduce your nicotine craving. You can also find free resources from the National Cancer Institute offers a number of smoking cessation resources at SmokeFree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
Avoid air pollutants: Stay away from things that could irritate your lungs like dust, allergens and strong fumes. To help improve the air quality at your home, remove dust-collecting clutter and keep carpets clean; run the exhaust fan when using cleaning products, bug sprays or paint; ban smoking indoors; and keep windows closed when outdoor air pollution is high (see AirNow.gov for daily air-quality reports).
Get vaccinated: Respiratory illness such as, the flu, pneumonia and the coronavirus can cause serious problems for people who have COPD. You may want to talk with your physician about the recommended vaccinations for your medical circumstances.
Take prescribed medications: Bronchodilators (taken with an inhaler) are commonly used for COPD. They help relax the airway muscles to make breathing easier. Depending on the severity of your condition is, you may need a short-acting version only for when symptoms occur, or a long-acting prescription for daily use. Inhaled steroids may also help reduce inflammation and mucus and prevent flare-ups.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.