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What Lung Disease Doctors Wish You Knew About COPD


Dan Roe


July 15, 2022


It’s not curable, but it is treatable. Here’s how to live well with this chronic condition, which makes breathing difficult. 

Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, excess mucus, respiratory infections. All happen occasionally, but when they don’t ever seem to go away, it could be a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. 

Without treatment, COPD gets worse over time and causes permanent lung damage. For that reason, it’s important that you talk to your Emcara Health care team or a pulmonologist—a doctor specializing in lung disease—if you have any of the symptoms above.

COPD can be caused by several respiratory conditions. One is emphysema, in which alveoli—the tiny passageways where oxygen and carbon dioxide pass between the blood and the lungs—are destroyed from smoking or inhaling damaging particles. Another is chronic bronchitis, which causes COPD due to inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes, which transport oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the alveoli.

Knowing you have COPD and treating it with medication, dietary changes, and exercise can help you maintain a high quality of life and avoid complications. Below are seven facts that you should know about COPD.

Fact #1: You May Have COPD and Not Know It

The CDC is aware of at least 16 million Americans who live with COPD, but the organization believes the real number is much higher. 

People often don’t feel the symptoms of COPD until significant lung damage has occurred, according to the Mayo Clinic. That’s especially true for smokers and people with asthma who have lived with symptoms like persistent cough and shortness of breath for years. 

Fatigue is another common symptom, but not everyone makes the connection between feeling sluggish and not getting enough oxygen.

If you have symptoms or risk factors of COPD, getting tested now may prolong the life of your lungs. Your Emcara Health provider can get you started with a lung function test, chest X-ray, and CT scan to determine whether you have COPD.

Fact #2: Smoking Isn’t the Only Risk

Cigarette smoke irritates and damages the bronchial tubes and alveoli in the lungs, which makes it the most common cause of COPD. In fact, according to the CDC, smoking causes roughly 80 percent of COPD deaths in the United States.

That said, about a quarter of people with COPD have never smoked. Breathing particulate matter from air pollution or construction dust can also cause the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, people with asthma may also be higher risk. And about 1 percent of COPD cases are the result of a rare genetic disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

Fact #3: Changing How You Eat May Reduce Symptoms

As your body breaks down the food you eat, it makes carbon dioxide (CO2) that you exhale as waste. People with COPD have a reduced ability to exhale CO2, according to the European Respiratory Society. That can lead to chronically high levels of CO2 in the bloodstream. Too much CO2 and not enough oxygen in the blood can cause tiredness, fatigue, confusion, or even more dangerous complications. 

The American Lung Association (ALA) suggests that people with COPD eat a diet with more fat than carbohydrates—breaking down fat emits less CO2. Also avoid carbonated drinks that cause bloating. Instead, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, which aids your breathing by thinning the mucus that lines your airways.

Maintaining a healthy weight and eating healthy foods will also help you keep COPD symptoms in check, so speak with your Emcara Health dietitian about how you can use food to breathe better.

Fact #4: Colds, Flu, and COVID Are Especially Dangerous 

Once your lungs are damaged, they’re less able to fight off respiratory infections and more vulnerable to “exacerbations,” or episodes where symptoms are worse than usual. Those flare-ups can cause even more permanent damage, according to the ALA.

In addition to avoiding smoke and other irritants, the ALA recommends working hard to prevent infections by washing your hands and sanitizing regularly, staying current with flu and pneumonia vaccinations, and avoiding crowds and sick family members during cold and flu season. 

Avoiding the coronavirus is particularly important: A recent National Institutes of Health review of COVID mortality data found the virus was twice as fatal for people with COPD. 

If you have COPD, get vaccinated against COVID and stay up-to-date on your boosters. A 2022 study published in the European Respiratory Journal found that COVID vaccines are equally effective at preventing severe disease in COPD patients as they are in healthy individuals. 

Fact #5: It’s Important to Prepare for Bad Days

Your COPD symptoms may increase or decrease by the day, but a bad flare-up can still catch you off guard. To make sure you’re always ready to treat your COPD, the ALA recommends working with your physician to come up with an action plan that addresses all levels of symptoms. 

A sample plan, available on the ALA’s website, groups symptoms by severity and provides a quick reference if you’re unsure about what to do. Your Emcara Health primary care physician or nurse practitioner may come up with a plan that involves medication, a relief inhaler, or prescribed oxygen for mild to moderate symptoms such as coughing and slight breathlessness. 

Seek emergency treatment if you start struggling to breathe while at rest or feel other major changes like chest pains or chills.

Fact #6: Exercise Can Help

While COPD patients may struggle to catch their breath after moderate or strenuous activity, that isn’t a reason to pull back from exercise altogether. 

According to the ALA, moderate exercise can strengthen your respiratory muscles and improve your breathing. Walking, biking, and other forms of aerobic exercise can help develop your heart and lungs, and resistance training can strengthen the muscles that control your breath. 

Your Emcara Health care team can work with you to develop an exercise plan that’s right for your symptoms. 

Fact #7: You Can Live Well with COPD

There’s no known cure for COPD, but your Emcara Health care team can explore a variety of treatment options to manage flare-ups and keep you breathing as well as possible. 

For many people, a combination of bronchodilators (medications that relax airway muscles) and inhaled steroids is enough to live normally. People with more severe COPD may also use oral steroids or supplemental oxygen, according to the Mayo Clinic

The gold standard in COPD treatment is a pulmonary rehab program, which provides advice on medication, diet, and exercise. 

Your Emcara Health care team will help you address COPD from all angles so you can live and breathe your best, every day. 

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