It’s a sad fact that people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD, have trouble doing what connects us to life – they can’t easily breathe.
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The disease can affect their airways, air sacs or both. Remarkably, it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association – affecting more than 11 million Americans we know about, and another estimated 24 million who go undiagnosed.
Pulmonologist Kathrin Nicolacakis, MD, says that COPD is often misunderstood. She sheds light on four common myths about COPD:
Myth 1: Only smokers get COPD
Fact: While COPD is often associated with smoking, and rightly so, there are a substantial number of people with this condition who never smoked.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 42 percent of COPD sufferers are former smokers, 34 percent are current smokers and the rest – which make up 24 percent — never lit a cigarette.
Myth 2: There’s no treatment for COPD
Fact: There is a lot that can be done for COPD patients, says Dr. Nicolacakis. “People need to know that COPD is treatable, and if you have symptoms, there are many options to help you feel better,” she says. “We may not be able to reverse it, but we can control the symptoms and prevent further damage to the lungs,” she adds.
Dr. Nicolacakis asks all her COPD patients to quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of exercise and keep up on their influenza and pneumonia vaccines. “Taking care of themselves in these ways can sometimes help offset the complications of COPD,” she says.
It’s also important to take your medications. Your doctor will tailor them to your needs.
Medications include inhalers that open your airways or reduce airway inflammation, supplemental oxygen, and alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) infusions if you have an inherited deficiency. PDE4 enzyme inhibitors can reduce inflammation in some patients. You also need flu and pneumonia vaccines to prevent serious illness.
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Myth 3: If you have COPD, it’s too late to quit smoking
Fact: “Some people think that once they are diagnosed with COPD, there’s no benefit to quitting smoking,” Dr. Nicolacakis says. “But it’s never too late to quit because it will slow the progression of the disease.”
Unfortunately, the lung damage that characterizes COPD is cumulative, which means that it doesn’t go away just because you kicked the habit, but there’s still a lot of benefit to quitting, Dr. Nicolacakis says.
However, if you quit smoking early enough, near-normal lung function may return. Try a smoking cessation program. Combining nicotine replacement with counseling, group support and medication is your best chance of success.
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Myth 4: Exercise is too hard if you have COPD
Fact: If you find that shortness of breath makes it too difficult to be physically active, there are further steps you can take. Dr. Nicolacakis recommends pulmonary rehabilitation, where specialized respiratory therapists teach breathing techniques, exercises and proper nutrition to make living with COPD easier.
Moderate exercise will not hurt your lungs. In fact, it can lessen COPD symptoms, strengthen your heart and reduce stress.
Build up to 20 to 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. Combine a safe cardiovascular activity you enjoy with stretching and strengthening exercises. Ask your doctor for guidance. Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, taking twice as long to exhale as to inhale. Rest before and after exercise, and wait an hour and a half after meals to work out.
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Tips to manage your COPD
If you have COPD, there are steps you can take so that living with it more manageable. Managing it well will allow you to stay active and involved with family and friends.
Besides quitting smoking, taking prescribed medications and exercising, the following can also help:
- Conserve your energy. Breathing takes more energy for people with COPD. So get plenty of sleep at night and plan for one rest period per day. Elevate your head at night and your feet during the day when your ankles swell. Rest before and after activities. Make realistic plans for chores and avoid extreme exertion, such as heavy lifting, raking and shoveling. Avoid working long days.
- Prevent respiratory infections. Wash your hands carefully, especially after being outside. Get a flu shot six weeks before the start of flu season each year and get the Pneumococcal vaccine every five years to help prevent pneumonia. See your doctor if you think you’re getting sick; antibiotics can prevent serious chest infections.
- Eat right. Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re too heavy, your heart and lungs have to work too hard. If you’re too thin, you’re more easily fatigued and at higher risk of chest infections. Drink six to eight glasses of caffeine-free liquid every day to thin mucus in the airways. Eat fiber to keep your digestion moving. Limit salt to avoid water retention and bloating. Avoid overeating. If you get full too fast, consider five to six small meals a day, take small bites, and save liquids for the end of the meal. If you have an oxygen cannula, wear it while eating.
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Not sure if you might have COPD?
The first signs of COPD may include a hacking cough with phlegm, shortness of breath, wheezing when you breathe or tightness in your chest.
If you have any of these symptoms, Dr. Nicolacakis recommends seeing your doctor for a spirometry test, a simple outpatient procedure that assesses your lung function by measuring how much air you’re able to breathe in and out.