COPD: Need-to-know Info

COPD, Featured Article, Healthy Aging, Healthy Living, Power to the Patient, Respiratory Health
on February 29, 2012

Feeling a bit breathless after rushing up the stairs is one thing. But if you’re winded after a leisurely stroll down the hall—especially if you’re a current or former smoker—you may be one of 12 million Americans who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, characterized by coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. COPD, the third leading cause of death in the United States, is an umbrella term for chronic bronchitis, or inflammation and scarring of the lungs’ bronchial tubes; and emphysema, which involves the destruction of the lungs’ air sacs.  Here’s what you need to know about preventing, treating and living with COPD.

Can the cigarettes. Smoking causes about 85 percent of COPD cases, and about 15-20 percent of smokers get COPD. But you don’t have to be a smoker to get it. Pollution, second-hand smoke and even genetics can cause it.

Get tested. The American Lung Association (ALA) recommends that current or former smokers over age 40 or anyone with a family history of COPD, emphysema or chronic bronchitis, and those with a chronic cough or frequent breathlessness, should be tested for COPD. The gold-standard test is spirometry, which requires you to breathe into a device that measures the amount and rate of air flow.

Find a pulmonologist. If you have breathing problems, don’t settle for a generalist, says respiratory therapist Jane Martin, associate director of education for the COPD Foundation.  See a pulmonary specialist up on the latest treatments; ask your doctor for a referral or find one through the ALA website (

Stick to your regimen. Treatments for alpha-1 COPD, the genetic form of the disease, and the non-heritable forms of the disease are mostly the same—bronchodilator therapy, says COPD expert Dr. Stephen Rennard, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha: “There are different classes of bronchodilators”—inhaled drugs that relax the airways—“and each one works differently, so you get benefits from being on more than one.”  Your doctor may also prescribe corticosteroids to relieve lung inflammation.

Study up. Most COPD medication is delivered through an inhaler. Use it wrong and you won’t get the medication’s benefit, Martin says: “Ask your pulmonologist to show you how to hold an inhaler and how to breathe in the medicine so that the maximum amount goes into the lungs, not to the back of your throat.”

Keep moving. “The more deconditioned your muscles, the more oxygen they require,” Martin says. So pulmonary rehabilitation–supervised exercise covered by Medicare and most insurance companies–is key for maintaining stamina, endurance and heart health.

Get vaccinated. Have an annual flu shot and a pneumonia shot every five to seven years. Because these illnesses affect the respiratory system, they can be particularly serious for people with COPD.

Join a support group. You’ll get practical information about how to use inhalers or oxygen therapy. But you also get moral support, Martin says: “No one understands like peers with the disease.”  You can also call the COPD Foundation Hotline where trained people with COPD answer questions from 9-9 EST Mon.-Fri.