Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a common condition that affects more than 3 million Americans. COPD is actually not one disease, but a group of diseases that are characterized by decreased air flow from the lungs. The most common conditions associated with COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Both are different than asthma.
The most common cause of COPD is chronic exposure to airborne irritants. In the US the most common cause is exposure to cigarettes. It is very uncommon to have COPD without a 10 pack/year history of smoking. Given this, it is very unusual to see COPD in individuals less than 40 years old. Some industrial workers can develop COPD after working around industrial toxins, gases and dusts.
The most frequent presenting symptom of COPD are cough and shortness of breath. These occur due to inflammation of the air sacs/tubes in the lung that cause narrowing and excess mucus production. These symptoms can be present for years before you have changes in your exam or chest X-Ray. This may lead to a lag in diagnosis. Sometimes, lung function breathing tests and chest CT scans can detect COPD years before is if otherwise obvious.
Although there is no cure for COPD, early treatment and smoking cessation can provide dramatic improvement. The treatments are readily available through any health care provider and are generally well tolerated.
The biggest take home message if you are concerned about COPD is: Talk to your provider. Early detection and treatment can save lives and improved your quality of life! You can also participate in Northwest Research’s study. See details below.