How to Breathe Easy

One of the most common respiratory illnesses among Americans is heavily associated with smoking. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a condition in which air is prevented from getting into or out of the lungs. Both emphysema and chronic bronchitis are considered forms of COPD.

Almost every case of COPD is caused by tobacco smoke. Dust and other irritants are sometimes responsible, but the overwhelming majority of cases are due to smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. The more a person smokes, the higher the risk of developing COPD. Pipe and cigar smokers are also at risk, as are heavy marijuana users. A very small number of cases of COPD are the result of a genetic disorder, and long-term exposure to chemical fumes, occupationally or something equally constant and intense, can also cause the condition.

COPD symptoms typically worsen over time. By the time symptoms are noticeable, there’s usually already a substantial amount of damage to the lungs. Symptoms of COPD include a wheezing or hacking cough, trouble catching your breath, shortness of breath, fatigue, and tightness in the chest. The coughing usually—but not always—produces large amounts of mucous. Pulmonary obstruction can be present for some time before symptoms appear.

The condition is generally diagnosed with lung function tests, measuring the body’s ability to inhale and exhale. The most common lung function test uses a device called a spirometer to gauge the speed and volume of a patient breathing out. However, a new imaging technique called parametric response mapping can detect more subtle signs of COPD, and catch it earlier.

There is no cure for COPD; the damage to the lungs is permanent. However, quitting smoking will prevent the damage from getting worse. Treatments involve inhaled medications that can relax the muscles around the breathing passages or reduce inflammation. Recent research suggests that exercise in water can help improve breathing in patients. In extreme cases, surgery may be needed to restore lost lung function.

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