COPD Awareness: What It Is & How to Lower Your Risk
For many Americans, taking a breath of fresh air is a mundane act that’s often taken for granted — a bodily function that is of course necessary yet somehow almost automatic. However, millions of Americans live without that luxury; for them, breathing can be a struggle as a weakened respiratory system prevents them from enjoying a healthy, active lifestyle. This COPD Awareness Month, learn the facts about this debilitating illness and what you can do to minimize your risk.
What Is COPD?
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a group of several diseases causing airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. Examples of COPD can include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), 5% of American adults — approximately 12.5 million people — are living with COPD. That number rises in rural communities, where 8% of residents are living with COPD. In Illinois alone, 547,915 adults have been diagnosed with COPD.
Symptoms & Risk Factors
Because it encompasses multiple diseases, COPD symptoms can vary by patient. While not every symptom may be present, some common warning signs can include the following:
- Frequent coughing or wheezing
- Producing excess phlegm or mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty taking deep breaths
- Recurring lung infections
COPD is a progressive disease, which means it becomes worse with time. The ALA reports early detection and diagnosis can help reduce the severity of symptoms. If you suspect you may have COPD, talk to your healthcare provider — they may order a pulmonary function test to measure your lung strength.
Your health history also plays an important role in your risk of developing COPD. The ALA reports smoking is the No. 1 cause of COPD, accounting for nearly 75% of cases. In fact, the chemicals in cigarette smoke — as well as e-cigarettes and cigars — have been proven to weaken the lungs’ defenses against infections, narrow air passages, swell bronchial tubes, and destroy the alveoli (air sacs). Exposure to secondhand smoke has also been shown to increase the risk of developing COPD. Other causes include:
- Occupational exposure to chemicals, dust, and fumes
- Frequent exposure to air pollution like smog, motor vehicle and power plant emissions, and smoke from wood burning and wildfires
- Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AATD) deficiency
- History of asthma or childhood respiratory infections
- Underdeveloped lungs
Lower Your Risk
If you’re at high risk of developing COPD or are worried about diminished lung function later in life, the ALA recommends some basic lifestyle changes to lower your chances.
Quit smoking — As the primary cause of COPD, quitting smoking can drastically reduce your risk — and your family’s risk — of developing COPD later in life.
Reduce lung infections — Respiratory illnesses can have a long-lasting impact on your pulmonary health. Stay updated on seasonal vaccines like influenza and pneumonia, as well as your COVID-19 vaccine.
Reduce occupational exposure — If you work around chemicals, dust, or fumes, use protective equipment like masks or respirators. Attend work-sponsored safety training events as they are scheduled.