Understanding COPD

When you find yourself out of breath after walking up a short flight of stairs or breaking out into a coughing fit for seemingly no reason, you are understandably concerned. If you’ve ruled out a number of other causes, you might want to consider the possibility that you’re one of the 24 million people in the US who suffer from COPD. What is it? Could you have it? How do you proceed once you’re diagnosed? Let’s talk about that.

Understanding COPD

Understanding COPD

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder. This is an umbrella term used to describe a number of diseases that affect the lungs. These include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some types of bronchiectasis.

Common symptoms include:

  • Increased breathlessness
  • Persistent coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

How Is it Diagnosed?

Now that you’ve begun to understand COPD, what do you do if you suspect you or a loved one have it? The first step is consulting with your doctor. They will be able to sit down with you and determine your risk factors, such as being exposed to air pollution or having a history of smoking. If you do have these risk factors as well as the above-mentioned symptoms, they will probably test you for COPD.

The first test they may run is spirometry. This uses a small machine hooked up to a mouthpiece. You will blow into the mouthpiece, emptying your lungs, and then the machine will calculate two numbers from that test. The first number is the amount of air you blow out in the first second, and the second number is the amount of air you blow out in six seconds or more.  They divide these two numbers to get a ratio. People with COPD usually have results at or below a ratio of 70%. This indicates to what extent your airways are obstructed.

Your doctor may also order a chest x-ray or CT scan in order to see your lungs in greater detail and to determine if your lung problems stem from another cause other than COPD.

If you do have symptoms, it is important to get tested as soon as possible. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away — unfortunately it could get even worse if left untreated. Once diagnosed, there are a number of treatments available to you.

What Now?

So you’ve been tested and diagnosed with COPD – what comes next? There are lifestyle changes that you can implement to help you start to feel better. Since a common underlying factor in poor lung health is smoking, if you are a smoker it is essential that you quit as soon as possible. This will slow the progression of the disease and improve the quality of your life. Starting a regular exercise plan and eating healthier are also key to helping you feel better.

Other treatments are available if your COPD worsens and you are unable to ameliorate the symptoms on your own. Your doctor may prescribe various medications to reduce shortness of breath, control coughing and wheezing, or prevent flare-ups. Your doctor may also recommend using oxygen treatment if your COPD progresses. A good plan and open communication between you and your doctor about your ongoing health are important in moving forward with a diagnosis of COPD.

If you’ve lived with the symptoms of COPD, you know first-hand how it can change your life. Getting diagnosed and treated, however, can also change your life — for the better! Talk to your doctor and begin understanding COPD and what it means for you.

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