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Trouble Breathing? You May Have COPD and Not Know It

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Coughing and short of breath? Feeling more fatigued than normal? These could be symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of chronic lung diseases that impair flow of air in the lungs, making it difficult for victims to breathe. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates COPD affects 24 million Americans – at least half of which have the symptoms but are not yet diagnosed. Despite being a highly under-diagnosed condition, you have the ability to identify COPD symptoms and choose early screening before major loss of lung function occurs.

Are You at Risk for COPD?

Though COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, many people have never heard of COPD, and therefore, do not know they are at risk. Even if you are not demonstrating clear symptoms, you may be at risk for developing COPD if:

  • You are currently a smoker (smoking is the primary risk factor for COPD, causing 80 percent of COPD deaths)
  • You have a history of smoking
  • You have been exposed to second-hand smoke
  • You have had long-term exposure to chemical fumes, dust or air pollution from environment or workplace
  • You had a serious lung infection as a child
  • You had emphysema in your 30s or 40s (you may have a genetic disorder, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, but this is rare)
  • For those who smoke or used to smoke, quitting tobacco is the best way to prevent further damage to lungs, but it can’t reverse the damage that may have already occurred. If there is a chance you are at risk for COPD, schedule an appointment to talk to you doctor about screening recommendations.

COPD Symptoms

Many people mistake their increased breathlessness and coughing as a normal part of acting, but oftentimes, trouble breathing can be the early warning sign of COPD. Most people who have COPD are at least 40 years old when symptoms begin. Though COPD symptoms usually do not occur until significant lung damage has occurred, typical signs to look out for include:

  • Chronic cough (often called a smoker’s cough) that produces excess mucus
  • Shortness of breath, especially worsened during physical activity
  • Wheezing while breathing
  • Tightness in chest when breathing
  • Aches and pains (25 percent of COPD patients experience general aches and pains)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Loss of muscle strength
  • A bluish tent in your lips of fingernail beds
  • Swollen legs or feet
  • Unintended weight loss (usually in later stages)
  • Not everyone who has these symptoms has COPD. Vice versa, not everyone who has COPD will have these symptoms. If you do have COPD, the severity of symptoms will depend on how much lung damage you have. Those with COPD are likely to experience exacerbation, or episodes when symptoms worsen for days at a time.

Getting Tested for COPD

Even though COPD is a chronic, progressive disease, the sooner it's diagnosed and the sooner you start treatment, the better the chances of slowing down its progression. If you have COPD symptoms or used to be a smoker, talk to your doctor about testing. Spirometer, the test for COPD, is a simple and non-invasive procedure that will allow your doctor to determine whether your airways are narrowed from COPD and recommend treatment options if the disease is detected.
 
Breathing easier starts with knowing the symptoms of COPD, so you can address treatment options before conditions worsen. Although COPD can’t be cured, it can be managed. Contact the respiratory therapists at UnityPoint at Home to learn about how comprehensive COPD management –including breathing treatments and home medical equipment– can help you remain healthy and independent in the comfort of home.