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Understanding and Treating COPD

The more you know, the easier it is to control COPD.
By
WebMD Feature

Anyone can have trouble breathing once in a while. But for those who have COPD, debilitating symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, and poor lung function can seem relentless.

If you have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), you need to know that while it can’t be cured, it can be managed. Its symptoms can be controlled. And COPD doesn’t have to keep someone from having a fulfilling and satisfying life.

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COPD is a term that describes a group of lung diseases, mainly emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that cause air-flow obstructions.

Everyone experiences a slow decline in lung function after their 20s or 30s, says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the Respiratory Care Department at Mount Sinai Center in New York City. “As we age, lung function slowly declines each year.”

But some people, such as those who smoke cigarettes, experience a rapid decline in lung function associated with COPD. Indeed, smoking is a major risk factor for COPD, but it is not the only one. Environmental risk factors include exposure to fumes and irritants, living with air pollution, or living in a dusty environment. And some people can inherit a genetic predisposition for developing COPD.

Recognizing COPD Symptoms

Early detection and medical treatment makes it easier to manage COPD. While early COPD may not cause noticeable symptoms, a doctor’s exam can reveal abnormal breathing and wheezing when a person exhales. Other COPD symptoms may include:

  • an increase or decrease in the amount of mucus or sputum, also called phlegm, that is produced in the lungs and coughed up
  • the presence of blood in the sputum
  • shortness of breath that is persistent -- often described as ‘heaviness’ or ‘air hunger
  • a chronic cough present throughout the day
  • wheezing
  • a general feeling of ill health
  • swelling of the ankles
  • difficulty sleeping
  • using more pillows or sleeping in a chair instead of a bed to avoid shortness of breath
  • unexplained increase or decrease in weight
  • increasing morning headaches, dizzy spells, or restlessness
  • increased fatigue and lack of energy

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