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Living With COPD

COPD presents 13 million Americans with new challenges and opportunities for better health.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Quiz the average person on the street, and how many could tell you what it is? Would you know that it's the 4th leading cause of death in the United States? Not likely. But that is one of COPD's unfortunate claims to fame.

A serious and progressive lung disease diagnosed in more than 13 million Americans, COPD develops when lungs become damaged from smoking and sometimes from heavy exposure to pollution, chemicals, or dusts. Genes may also play a role in the development of the disease.

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COPD causes airways to become partially blocked, making it very hard to breathe. You can't reverse the damage it causes, and COPD has no cure. But you can do many things to slow its progression and live a longer, higher-quality life.

When COPD Is the Diagnosis

Diagnosing COPD is not a complex process. Combined with a medical history and physical exam, an easy, painless breathing test called spirometry can confirm the diagnosis. A machine called a spirometer measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can blow air out of your lungs after taking a deep breath. You may need extra tests to rule out other problems or to plan treatment.

Typically, people with COPD wait a fairly long time before getting diagnosed, says Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. Their breathing becomes more labored, but they learn how to compensate.

Besides shortness of breath - often with activity - other COPD symptoms that may prompt a visit to the doctor are coughing, wheezing, excess mucus, or chest tightness that won't go away.

Because the symptoms develop so gradually, says Edelman, "People often think, 'I'm just getting older or I've put on a little weight.' Then they hear, 'No, this is a real disease.'" So the diagnosis of COPD often comes as a shock.

Adding to the shock is stigma. "Most people who are diagnosed are smokers," says Edelman, "So there is also this sense that 'I brought it on myself.'" For this reason, it can be harder news to receive, he says.

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