Reviewed by Varnada Karriem-Norwood on June 10, 2012

Sources

Gerald Staton, MD, professor of medicine, Emory University Hospital, board member, American Lung Association Southeast. David Schulman, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine, Emory University Hospital. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. American Lung Association. National Lung Health Education Program. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “COPD – Exams and Tests. "Barreiro, T. American Family Physician.

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Video Transcript

Narrator: These men and women are fighting a common enemy: COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Their lungs don't work normally…every breath taken can be a struggle. What do they believe to be the cause?

Bill Durham COPD Patient: Too many cigarettes. Smoked too long, about 40 years.

Loretta Freeman COPD Patient: I started smoking when I was 17.

Joseph Burlas COPD Patient: My wife says it's from 40 years of smoking.

Narrator: That's true for about 85-percent of COPD cases.

Gerald Staton, MD: We do see occasional patients that have various industrial exposures that can seem to contribute to that, but often they smoke cigarettes too and so it's probably a combination of factors.

Narrator: Consider what happened to 59-year-old Gregory Wright. As a firefighter he was exposed to burning plastics, asbestos and chemicals. Then he worked at an airport breathing in noxious fumes and gases.

Gregory Wright, COPD Patient: The doctor going over my medical history – did you ever smoke? Yes. I smoked for over 30 years.

Narrator: Another troublesome combination:

Gerald Staton, MD: Asthma seems to be a predisposition that if you are an asthmatic as a child and then smoke cigarettes then you have a fairly significantly higher risk of developing COPD later in life.

Narrator: Then there's a particularly lethal mix: a genetic, or hereditary predisposition due to alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency.

Diane Kay, COPD Patient: I was diagnosed with alpha 1 in '99 but I had symptoms for years and being a flight attendant I had a difficult time keeping up with the rest of the crews.

Narrator: Although rare, people like Diane Kay have low levels of a so-called lung protector protein that's produced by the liver.

Diane Kay, COPD Patient: It took me forever to walk up the driveway from getting the mail. I had to take breaks, and you just think you getting older and at that the time I was a smoker. so you think you know you're older and you smoking and you know. What do you expect?

Narrator: She was susceptible to colds, bronchitis and laryngitis and it took her forever to get over these illnesses. The early COPD symptoms are often missed:

Gerald Staton, MD: Even people in their 30's and 40's will have the so-called smoker's cough. They think that's normal. They think everybody gets up in the morning and coughs up stuff, that's not normal. That's the beginning of symptoms.

Narrator: Shortness of breath tends to develop in their late 40's and 50's. Diane finally had to give up her job:

Diane Kay, COPD Patient: They kind of frown on flight attendants walking on an airplane with an oxygen mask (laughs).

Narrator: Eventually it became so difficult for Diane to breathe that she ended up needing a lung transplant. Her advice: don't smoke.

Diane Kay, COPD Patient: It basically caused me to have a transplant. If I hadn't been a smoker or worked in an environment where there is second hand smoke I probably wouldn't have had a transplant I never would have gotten as sick as I got, as quickly as I did.

Narrator: For WebMD, I'm Rhonda Rowland.