COPD: An irreversible, preventable lung disease

— There is a killer disease that claims the lives of nearly 87,000 Americans every year.

Multiple millions of adults are suffering from the debilitating effects of this deadly disease that could be almost completely alleviated by making some simple lifestyle changes.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a group of diseases that includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema and reactive airway disease, also known as asthmatic bronchitis. The common characteristic of this group of diseases is obstruction to airflow out of the lungs. The most common symptom is a shortness of breath.

COPD causes the lungs to lose their elasticity, making breathing increasingly difficult. The resulting decreased lung function then puts added stress on the heart, circulatory system and immune system.

"COPD is almost 100 percent preventable," Yampa Valley Medical Center Respiratory Care Director Bill Moore said. "Since smoking is the most important risk factor for COPD, it would probably only be a minor health problem if people didn't smoke."

Other risk factors for developing COPD include age, heredity and exposure to air pollution, including secondhand smoke.

If a smoker stops smoking before serious COPD develops, lung function can stabilize.

"COPD progresses while you're smoking," Moore said. "When you quit, your lungs don't get better, but they stop getting worse."

Unfortunately, none of the current methods used to diagnose COPD is capable of detecting the disease before irreversible lung damage has occurred.

The quality of life for a person suffering from COPD diminishes as the disease progresses.

At the onset of COPD, symptoms are minimal; in fact, the American Lung Association estimates that as many as 16 million Americans who have the disease don't even know it yet. Symptoms can progress to the point where sufferers often require supplemental oxygen to perform basic daily tasks.

Gradually worsening symptoms include chronic cough, shortness of breath, chronic mucous production, wheezing or coughing up blood.

Although there is no cure for COPD, the severity of the disease can be reduced if the patient adapts to a program of respiratory care designed by a health-care professional.

You and your family members can ensure the health of your lungs by tailoring your lifestyles.

If you exercise regularly, eat well, quit smoking (or better yet, never start), avoid secondhand smoke and other air pollutants and take action immediately if you experience lung disease symptoms, you can breathe easy.

Bonnie Boylan is Public Relations Coordinator for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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