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COPD Ignored by Doctors and Patients

New Approach Needed in Detecting and Treating Nation's No. 4 Killer: COPD
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What Is COPD? continued...

In fact, Buist says the symptoms of COPD are often confused with the normal aging process. Those symptoms include:

  • Persistent cough, with increased sputum (phlegm) production
  • Shortness of breath during physical exertion
  • Fatigue
  • Decline in quality of life

Since these changes are gradual, researchers say the majority of people with COPD aren't diagnosed until they are hospitalized, and only about 25% to 50% of those with the disease are aware of it.

By the time most people with COPD do seek medical attention for these symptoms, typically while in their mid-50s, Buist says many have already lost up to half of their lung function.

Detecting COPD

Researchers say that early detection and treatment of COPD is the key to slowing the decline in lung function that occurs and preventing premature death from the disease.

That's why a new program initiated by the American College of Chest Physicians is targeting family doctors, internists, and other primary care providers to increase their awareness of COPD and encourage them to screen for this deadly disease as they would other chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

"In just the same way we identify people with high blood pressure, give them advice with lifestyle changes, and design the best treatment," says Michael C. Iannuzzi, MD, chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "We have to have the same approach for COPD: measure, lifestyle change, treat."

Iannuzzi recommends that people with symptoms or risk factors for COPD, such as smoking, receive spirometry testing as a part of their regular health check-ups to screen for and diagnose COPD.

A spirometry test is a noninvasive test that measures lung function and is the only test that can confirm a suspected diagnosis of COPD. It involves exhaling into a machine attached to a computer that provides a measurement percentile based on the patient's age, height, and weight. Any number lower than 80% of the predicted measurement based on those factors is considered abnormal.

"Test your lungs, know your numbers," says Iannuzzi.

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