Wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing might be more than asthma – they could be warning signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
COPD refers to two different but related lung diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. People with one often suffer from the other.
With chronic bronchitis, the lungs’ airways become inflamed. Mucus builds up and restricts air from entering and leaving the lungs. In emphysema, the lungs’ alveoli, or air sacs, are damaged. Normally, as blood flows through these sacs, oxygen moves into the blood and carbon dioxide is filtered out. If the sacs don’t function properly, this exchange can be hindered, limiting the amount of air one can breathe out.
COPD is caused by inflammation in the lungs, which can develop from inhaling irritants for a long time. The main culprit is smoking. People can also develop COPD if they breathe polluted air, secondhand smoke or chemicals. Symptoms of the disease gradually worsen, so people may not initially realize they have it.
COPD ranks behind heart disease and cancer as the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. Historically, it has afflicted more men than women — particularly adults older than age 65. But since 2000, COPD has been more common in women. Compared with men, more women die from COPD every year. What’s more, they are 37 percent more likely to develop the disease. One study found women were more susceptible to COPD even if they started smoking later and smoked fewer cigarettes.
Why the change? A report from the American Lung Association says a major reason is the growing popularity of smoking among women from the 1920s through the 1970s. Smoking was traditionally a man’s habit. But changes in society and tobacco marketing encouraged more women to smoke. Those women who chose to light up when they were young may now be suffering from COPD.
Other restrictive lung diseases can include interstitial fibrosis, sarcoidosis, and occupational or environmental lung disease.
While there is no cure for COPD, pulmonary rehabilitation can help people with lung disease manage their chronic illness through supervised exercise, education regarding respiratory care, oxygen therapy, smoking cessation programs, nutritional counseling and psychosocial support.