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

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:

So don’t be confused, COPD has nothing to do with the Chicago Park District – it’s a serious disease.

Carrie Robertson
Research & Community Education

Chicago Skilled Nursing
Chicago Senior Living

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