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Chances are high that you know someone with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., and more than 16 million Americans have been diagnosed with it. But according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), millions more people have COPD and don’t realize it. Could you or someone you know be among them?
Here are some clues: COPD typically comes on slowly. You may start experiencing shortness of breath while doing everyday activities, and though it’s easy to think of this as just a part of “getting older,” often it’s not. Shortness of breath is a common—and potentially dangerous—symptom of COPD, so see a health professional as soon as you can. And watch for other symptoms—ongoing coughing; wheezing; and excessive production of sputum, a mixture of saliva and mucus. COPD can progress quickly and make it increasingly difficult to breathe. Often by the time people see a health professional, their lungs’ ability to work properly has been significantly impaired, so don’t delay. Without treatment, COPD can prevent you from doing basic activities, such as walking and dressing.
COPD: Why me?
While COPD takes a devastating toll across many populations and regions, researchers now know that certain people are at increased risk of developing the disease, including those who smoke or have smoked cigarettes. About 75 percent of COPD cases are caused by smoking, but people who have never smoked can also develop COPD, and scientists are continuously working to understand why. Long-term exposure to secondhand smoke and other lung irritants such as air pollution, chemical fumes and dusts from the environment or workplace can put you at risk. If you have a rare genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, your risk rises.
Race, sex and where you live can be influencers, as well. In the past, COPD often had been labeled a man’s disease. Yet, women are 30 percent more likely than men to have COPD. And while the vast majority of people diagnosed are white, COPD affects some other ethnic groups disproportionally. For example, COPD is more common among multiracial or American Indian/Alaska Native adults, but less common among Asian, African American and Hispanic populations.
Variances can be found geographically, too. COPD is twice as common in rural areas than in urban parts of the country. Many people with COPD can be found in southeastern parts of the U.S., such as Kentucky and Virginia, the Carolinas, and in areas of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys, where more rural communities are located.
COPD: What to do now?
Visit COPD Learn More Breathe Better, a program by the NHLBI, part of the National Institutes of Health, at COPD.nhlbi.nih.gov to learn more.
The key to keeping COPD at bay—or preventing it from getting worse—is to understand and recognize the signs and symptoms early and discuss the disease with a health professional. The sooner this happens, the sooner you or your loved one can get back to doing the things you love.