Q&A: What do I need to know about COPD?

Q:  My partner smoked for years and has now been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  What can you tell me about it?

A:  Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third most common cause of death in the United States. At least 15 million Americans have COPD, and those numbers are expected to increase as the population ages, and the first generation of premature babies with compromised lungs survives and reaches adulthood. It is a lung disease that includes emphysema and/or chronic bronchitis. Asthma, if not well-controlled, can develop into COPD.

Smoking is the top risk factor for COPD, but it is also caused by significant exposure to air pollution and/or secondhand smoke.

Although there is no cure for COPD, there are many things you can do to slow the progression.

COPD is characterized by the inability to blow enough air out of your lungs. It also adds demand to the heart. Symptoms such as shortness of breath, mucus production, wheezing and chest tightness may be mild, at first, but progressively worsen. It is often not diagnosed until lung damage is severe and irreversible.

The foremost treatment for COPD is smoking cessation, which can dramatically slow disease progression and reduce the risk for other tobacco-related conditions, such as cancer, heart attacks and stroke. Because lung damage is often irreversible, current therapies focus upon easing symptoms and improving quality of life.

So far, no safe, long-term remedy for COPD has been found. The best bet to avoid COPD? Don’t smoke.

COPD patients with other chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, or heart issues, may face frequent hospitalizations. But a  multidisciplinary care team and disease management plan can help stabilize the patients’ overall condition, improve their quality of life, and teach self-management skills that can be applied at home.

Candace Bromley is a certified physicians assistant and the lead at Lourdes Chronic Care Center/COPD program.