Early Disease continued...
Diagnosed early enough, a person with risk factors for COPD might be able to get off the slippery slope of worsening lung function.
"At that point, the most important thing would be to really quit smoking," Khurana says. "And then their other focus would be being up to date on immunizations -- a flu shot and a pneumonia shot. If someone had no symptoms but just these frequent infections and very early signs of decline, that person would not necessarily progress to worsening COPD."
People who have COPD can expect increasing breathlessness over time.
At first, this just means being short of breath after strenuous exercise. Later, it means getting out of breath from walking in a hurry, or from going up a flight of stairs. Eventually, someone with COPD has to stop for breath after walking slowly for just a few minutes. In the end, dressing and undressing becomes difficult.
Fortunately, there's a lot that can be done to make it easier to breathe. For smokers, quitting smoking is always the most important step at any stage of COPD. Preventing infections is important, so make sure to be vaccinated for flu and pneumococcal disease. So are drug treatments that make it easier to breathe.
"For those with very advanced COPD, we offer pulmonary rehabilitation," Khurana says. "We focus on improving quality of life, reducing shortness of breath, and increasing exercise tolerance. Pulmonary rehab improves outcomes in COPD."
Exercise always helps. "Even if patients are still independent in daily activities and fully employed, any degree of activity would help," Khurana says. "Making sure breathing muscles are in good condition lets people use their lungs to their fullest capacity to improve shortness of breath."
In the later stages of COPD, when the lungs can't get enough oxygen, proper use of home oxygen makes a big difference.
"We make every effort to educate patients about using home oxygen on a regular basis," Khurana says. "It is one of the interventions that improve survival and longevity."
The Future of COPD
Early diagnosis of COPD has been the exception rather than the rule. As that changes, Kiley says, more and more people with COPD will enter clinical trials.