When I first heard my mother discussing COPD and airflow, I thought she was referring to either the Chicago Police Department or the Chicago Parks District, and the air quality in Chicago. I couldn’t make sense of what she was referring to since she lives in Texas. When I caught on that she wasn’t trying to use Chicago slang, I had to ask her, “What in the world is COPD?” She explained that COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and that it’s not one disease, but a term for several lung diseases like Emphysema and chronic bronchitis that limit airflow. I started connecting the dots in the conversation, and I finally understood what she was talking about.
I was astonished to learn that COPD is most prevalent in adults aged 55 and older, and that more than 24 million people in the U.S. are living with this disease with no cure. COPD is typically thought of as a smoking disease, because 80% – 90% of all the cases in the U.S. are the result of smoking cigarettes; however, nonsmokers can develop COPD, too. My grandmother is living proof. Those with long-term exposure to secondhand smoke, dust, chemicals and indoor and outdoor air pollution can develop COPD. And let’s not forget the family history risk factor as well.
Symptoms of COPD
- Coughing up mucus or phlegm
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Wheezing and tightening of the chest
Less than half the people with COPD are diagnosed; this is in part because some think breathlessness is part of aging, or that they just have a “smoker’s cough.” By the time most are diagnosed, half of the lung function is lost because COPD causes the lungs to thicken and lose elasticity. People with COPD may have exacerbations from time to time caused by smoke, allergies, air pollution, cold air or dust. These exacerbations are episodes in which the symptoms get worse and the lungs become infected — requiring antibiotics or oral steroids.
Even though there is currently no cure for COPD, there are a number of treatment options available to help slow the damage to the lungs and keep the person active. It all depends on the stage and severity of the COPD. Medication, pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy and infection prevention are just a few treatment options.
Caregivers and Choices
If you are caring for someone with COPD or if you have COPD, it’s important to recognize the small day-to-day choices that can have a positive impact on COPD symptoms:
- Wash bedding, sheets and blankets weekly to avoid the respiratory problems caused by dust mites.
- Reduce animal dander by making the bedroom a pet-free zone.
- Properly ventilate the bathroom to avoid mold and mildew problems that affect the respiratory system.
- Aerosol sprays can irritate the airways – switch to roll-on deodorants, gels or liquid air fresheners.
- Turn on the exhaust fan when cooking, or open a window to avoid the smoke and strong scents.
- Use cleansers like vinegar and baking soda instead of chemicals that can aggravate respiratory conditions.
- Use a damp cloth when dusting to minimize dust particles that can be inhaled.
- Eating while sitting up will lessen the pressure on the lungs.
- Eating five small meals instead of three large meals a day gives the lungs more room to expand.
- Breathing can become more difficult when excess water is retained; avoiding salt can help.
- Regular exercise helps the body use oxygen better, decreases the level of breathlessness, and improves circulation.
So don’t be confused, COPD has nothing to do with the Chicago Park District – it’s a serious disease.
Research & Community Education