January 19, 2012

For most people, being out of breath after physical activity is a sign that the body’s been working hard. It’s temporary, and you know that you’ll be back to normal soon. However, people with pulmonary diseases feel this way constantly. They can’t seem to catch their breath, even after the simplest tasks of daily living.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that affects the lungs, making it harder to breathe as the disease progresses. COPD includes chronic bronchitis, which means the airway passages are irritated, narrowed and contain excessive mucus; and emphysema, which happens when the air sacs in the lungs are destroyed. “COPD was projected to become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, but it reached that mark much earlier, in 2010,” said Chuck Menders, director of respiratory care at CAMC. “It has been the third leading cause in West Virginia since 2000. Our state ranks number one or two in the prevalence, hospitalizations and mortality of COPD. This is no surprise, because we have a high percentage of smokers, a high median age population and four of the top 25 most air-particle polluted counties in the country.”

Smoking is by far the leading cause of COPD, accounting for 80 to 90 percent of all cases. Other risk factors include age, exposure to fumes, vapors and irritants in the workplace, outdoor pollution, genetics and gender, though the disease is becoming increasingly more prevalent in women.

“COPD develops slowly – it can take 30 years or longer for people to have symptoms that are recognizable as symptoms of COPD. Many people are not diagnosed until they’ve already lost half of their lung function,” Menders said.

Symptoms of COPD include:
• Shortness of breath
• Tightness in the chest
• Wheezing
• Coughing, with or without mucus production

“It’s very important for people to be able to recognize COPD symptoms early, because while it’s treatable, COPD is not curable,” Menders said. “Medications can control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease, but they can’t replace lung function that’s been lost. The most important step in both preventing and slowing the progression of COPD is to quit smoking.”

Pulmonary rehabilitation can help people suffering from COPD to improve their quality of life through education, exercise and lifestyle changes. The goal of pulmonary rehabilitation is to return the patient to his or her maximum potential, while reducing the incidence of life-threatening respiratory occurrences.

“COPD kills more people each year than breast cancer and diabetes combined,” Menders said. “It’s now estimated that of the 24 million people in our country who have COPD, half of them are undiagnosed. That’s why it’s so important to know if you’re at risk, to know the symptoms and to get help as soon as possible. The sooner someone with COPD gets treatment for their disease, the greater their quality of life will be.”

For more information about pulmonary rehabilitation programs at CAMC, visit camc.org.

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