Short Of Breath? It May Be COPD

A doctor pressing a stethoscope against his male patient's backChronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a growing epidemic, affecting 1 in 4 Americans over the age of 45.  A serious lung disease that often goes undiagnosed, COPD is the 4th leading cause of death and 2nd leading cause of disability in the U.S.

Although COPD has readily recognizable symptoms, about 12 million Americans may have COPD but not realize it.  Proper diagnosis and treatment can enhance and prolong life.  That’s why NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is working to get the word out about COPD, especially among those who are at greatest risk for the disease.

COPD sometimes goes by other names, like emphysema or chronic bronchitis.  It arises when airways in the lungs become partly blocked, making it harder to breathe.  Symptoms include constant coughing that produces lots of mucus, wheezing and shortness of breath.  When COPD is severe, breathing difficulties can get in the way of even the most basic activities, like doing housework, taking a walk and even bathing and getting dressed.

Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, although as many as 1 in 6 people with the disease have never smoked.  If you’ve had long-term exposure to lung-irritating chemicals or secondhand smoke, you may also be at risk.  Even without such exposure, some people may develop COPD if they’ve inherited certain genes.

A quick and easy test in your doctor’s office can determine if you have COPD, even before symptoms become severe.  The test, called spirometry, measures the amount of air you can blow out of your lungs, and how fast you can blow it.  If you’re at risk for COPD and have even mild symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting tested.

Several treatments—ranging from inhaled medications to physical activity—can reduce COPD symptoms.  By working with your doctor, you can take steps to make breathing easier and live a longer, more active life.