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COPD: Awareness Climbs, but Understanding Lags

More People Aware of COPD, but Understanding of the Disease Remains Low, Survey Shows
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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Nov. 4, 2009 -- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which makes breathing tough for one in every five people over age 45, is becoming a better-known condition, but nearly half of the people in a survey doubt it can be treated.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health says it found in a survey that 68% of adults have heard of COPD, up from 65% last year and 49% in 2004.

But only 44% of adults believe that the disease can be treated, the survey shows.

COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is a serious lung disease that affects 24 million men and women in the United States.

But half of them don’t get diagnosed, even though they have well-known uncomfortable symptoms, such as shortness of breath during activity, wheezing, or chronic coughing, the survey shows.

Smoking is the culprit in most COPD cases. The disease typically affects people over age 40. Other causes are related to genetics or environmental exposures.

Physicians believe that COPD sufferers can be helped, the survey shows, with nearly 90% of those surveyed saying they agree or strongly agree that treatments can optimize the quality of life of those with the disease. But the survey also shows that this message of hope may not be familiar to the public, with 46% of survey participants unsure whether COPD is treatable.

Current smokers are about half as likely to discuss their symptoms with their physicians, compared to former smokers, the survey found. It also found that 41% of current smokers don’t talk to their doctors about their COPD symptoms because they don’t want to be told to quit smoking.

“Awareness is an important first step,” says James P. Kiley, PhD, director of the Division of Lung Diseases at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “However, awareness alone is not enough. People at risk of developing the disease need to know what the disease looks and feels like, and most importantly, to understand that it can be treated. The key is to get tested and start treatment as soon as possible.”

COPD can be diagnosed with a simple, noninvasive breathing test called spirometry to evaluate lung function. “We know that for many people, taking the step to talk to a doctor about their smoking and symptoms is difficult,” Kiley says in a news release. “But these actions, including testing of lung function, should be seen as proactive for better health.”

The results represent a sample of 4,172 consumers through a mailed survey, with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points, and 1,000 doctors, through a Web-based survey with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Both surveys were conducted in the summer of 2009.

COPD is a progressive disorder, meaning it becomes increasingly difficult for patients to breathe. Most people with COPD either smoke or are former smokers. Other contributors include air pollution, dust, and chemical fumes.

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