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Breathe Easy

Savvy strategies for beating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

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You’ve probably heard of emphysema, a disease that makes it very difficult to breathe and that can destroy the lungs. But emphysema is actually part of an entire spectrum of illnesses called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD affects 12 million people in the United States, and another 12 million go undiagnosed. It is the third leading cause of death in our nation.

But there’s good news: You can help prevent COPD by never smoking or by kicking the habit today. Aside from a rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, COPD almost never impacts nonsmokers. “By quitting smoking, you reduce your risk of developing or worsening COPD dramatically,” says Seth Robinson, MD, a pulmonologist at Woodland Healthcare.

COPD is caused by damaged lung tissue that blocks the airflow as you exhale, making it difficult to breathe. Symptoms include a chronic cough, fatigue, recurrent respiratory infections, shortness of breath and wheezing.

If you think you may have COPD, visit your primary physician and ask to be tested. Your physician might have you do a pulmonary function test (blowing hard into a small machine), listen to your lungs using a stethoscope or take an X-ray.

If you are diagnosed with COPD, your doctor will work with you to identify the appropriate treatment, which can include using an inhaler or supplemental oxygen, depending on the severity of your illness. You also can take some of the measures below to prevent the condition from getting worse, improve your quality of life and ensure the longest life possible.

·      Avoid smoke. Don’t smoke, and avoid smoky places. Again, your goal is to prevent any more damage to the lungs.

·      Get your flu and pneumonia vaccinations. Preventing these illnesses can protect you from experiencing exacerbated symptoms and keep you out of the hospital.

·      Minimize unwanted exposure. Wash your hands, and avoid being around sick people. Consider wearing a mask in crowds or tight spaces like airplanes.

·      Exercise and eat right. These good practices help strengthen your body and your lungs, keep your weight in check, and improve your endurance.

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