Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD, is a lung disease in which the lungs are damaged and breathing becomes very difficult.
"Emphysema and chronic bronchitis can both cause COPD symptoms, in which air flow is obstructed through the lungs," explained Family Practice physician Timothy Wagner, D.O.
Common misunderstandings about COPD are that it only occurs in older smokers, that it can't be cured, and that there is not much that can be done about this condition.
Myth: COPD Is Always Caused by Smoking
"COPD symptoms, such as a cough, shortness of breath, and frequent lung infections are among the most frequent symptoms experienced by long-term smokers," Dr. Wagner added. "While emphysema and chronic bronchitis are usually caused by smoking, there are other causes of COPD as well, such as progressive forms of asthma or exposure to lung irritants like gases, fumes, secondhand smoke or air pollution."
Myth: COPD Only Occurs in Older People
COPD is more common in older people who have smoked for many years, but a simple test called spirometry may detect early changes from COPD in younger people.
"Spirometry is a lung function test that involves blowing into a small machine to measure lung capacity," Dr. Wagner continued. "Even before COPD symptoms develop, the early changes of emphysema or bronchitis may be present. If younger smokers are screened with spirometry, COPD may be diagnosed in people as young as 30 or 40."
Myth: There Is No Treatment for COPD
Although there is no cure for COPD, it can often be managed. "How well COPD can be treated depends on how advanced it is and what other diseases may be present, such as if a person has COPD along with heart disease or high blood pressure," Dr. Wagner said. "However, the progression of COPD can be slowed down by stopping smoking and taking medications as directed, including the use of oxygen if needed."
Myth: Don't Be Active With COPD
COPD symptoms may make some types of physical activity difficult, but eliminating physical activities altogether is not beneficial for those with COPD. "Physical therapy, including breathing exercises and exercises to strengthen the arms and shoulders, can be an important part of treatment," he stated. "Regular exercise along with a healthy diet helps a person's muscles remain strong, which reduces the demand placed on the lungs.
"In addition, it is never too late to stop smoking. As soon as you quit, your lung function starts to improve. Since COPD symptoms develop over time, changes in your lungs may have already started without you knowing it. The best time to stop smoking is right now."
Myth: Weather Doesn't Matter
Weather extremes are one of many factors that can trigger COPD symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness or phlegm production. Studies have shown that temperatures below freezing or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit tend to cause COPD symptoms to flare up.
"While there are a few people whose COPD symptoms improve in humid weather, most people's symptoms flare up on days of high heat, humidity, or smog. This can be an issue especially when a weather front moves in, bringing high humidity. Many people with COPD tell you that they know when a front is going to come through," Dr. Wagner remarked.
"On the hottest and most humid days of the year, stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment to prevent a flare-up of your symptoms. Also, if it is a high-pollution day, COPD sufferers should stay inside and limit their outdoor activities.
"Cold air and strong winds are also known to be triggers for the worsening of COPD symptoms. If COPD patients go out when it is windy and they have to walk against the wind, there is more resistance, and that can be a problem. Frigid temperatures can also fatigue COPD patients, making them feel more tired."
Living With COPD
With ongoing care and preventive strategies, you can take steps to manage COPD symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
"Depending on how severe your disease is, you may need to ask your family or friends for help with daily tasks," Dr. Wagner suggested. "Perform activities slowly and try to find simple ways to cook, clean, and do other chores. Some people find it helpful to use a small table or cart with wheels to move things around and use a pole or tongs with long handles to reach things. Keep your clothes loose, and wear clothes and shoes that are easy to put on and take off."
If you have COPD, knowing when and where to seek help for your symptoms is also important. "Call your doctor if you notice that your symptoms are worsening or if you have signs of an infection, such as a fever," Dr. Wagner concluded. "Your physician may change or adjust your treatments to relieve and treat symptoms. You should also seek emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking."
Timothy Wagner, D.O., is a board certified Family Practice physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff and Firestone Health Care. Firestone Health Care offices are located at 28885 St. Rt. 62 in Damascus, 330-537-4661; 132 North Market Street in East Palestine, (330) 426-9484; and 2364 Southeast Boulevard in Salem, 330-332-9961.