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Why Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Is More Likely Than You Think

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): More Likely Than You Think

COPD is not so much one disease, as rather a collection of similar (and often overlapping) diseases. The main defining characteristic is that they are progressive lung diseases. Historically the most common have been chronic bronchitis and emphysema, though Long COVID and related Post-COVID conditions appear to have been making inroads.

Lung cancer is generally considered separately, despite being a progressive lung disease, but there is crossover too:

COPD prevalence is increased in lung cancer, independent of age, sex and smoking history

COPD can be quite serious:

Life expectancy and years of life lost in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Findings from the NHANES III Follow-up Study

“But I don’t smoke”

Great! In fact we imagine our readership probably has disproportionately few smokers compared to the general population, being as we all our interested in our health.

But, it’s estimated that 30,000,000 Americans have COPD, and approximately half don’t know it. Bear in mind, the population of the US is a little over 340,000,000, so that’s a little under 9% of the population.

Click here to see a state-by-state breakdown (how does your state measure up?)

How would I know if I have it?

It typically starts like any mild respiratory illness. Likely shortness of breath, especially after exercise, a mild cough, and a frequent need to clear your throat.

Then it will get worse, as the lungs become more damaged; each of those symptoms might become stronger, as well as chest tightness and a general lack of energy.

Later stages, you guessed it, the same but worse, and—tellingly—weight loss.

The reason for the weight loss is because you are getting less oxygen per breath, making carrying your body around harder work, meaning you burn more calories.

What causes it?

Lots of things, with smoking being up at the top, or being exposed to a lot of second-hand smoke. Working in an environment with a lot of air pollution (for example, working around chemical fumes) can cause it, as can inhaling dust. New Yorkers: yes, that dust too. It can also develop from other respiratory illnesses, and some people even have a genetic predisposition to it:

Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency: a commonly overlooked cause of lung disease

Is it treatable?

Treatment varies depending on what form of it you have, and most of the medical interventions are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, there are medications that can be taken (including bronchodilators taken via an inhaler device), corticosteroids, antibiotics and antivirals of various kinds if appropriate. This is definitely a “see your doctor” item though, because there are is far too much individual variation for us to usefully advise here.

However!

There are habits we can do to a) make COPD less likely and b) make COPD at least a little less bad if we get it.

Avoiding COPD:

  • Don’t smoke. Just don’t.
    • Avoid second-hand smoke if you can
  • Avoid inhaling other chemicals/dust that may be harmful
  • Breathe through your nose, not your mouth; it filters the air in a whole bunch of ways
    • Seriously, we know it seems like nostril hairs surely can’t do much against tiny particles, but tiny particles are attracted to them and get stuck in mucous and dealt with by our immune system, so it really does make a big difference

Managing COPD:

  • Continue the above things, of course
  • Exercise regularly, even just light walking helps; we realize it will be difficult
  • Maintain a healthy weight if you can
    • This means both ways; COPD causes weight loss and that needs to be held in check. But similarly, you don’t want to be carrying excessive weight either; that will tire you even more.
  • Look after the rest of your health; everything else will now hit you harder, so even small things need to be taken seriously
  • If you can, get someone to help / do your household cleaning for you, ideally while you are not in the room.

Where can I get more help/advice?

As ever, speak to your doctor if you are concerned this may be affecting you. You can also find a lot of resources via the COPD Foundation’s website.

Take care of yourself!

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