Many of us take breathing for granted. We don’t think about the in-and-out rhythm of life-giving breath that occurs dozens of times a minute. However, for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, there are constant reminders throughout the day that each breath is precious.
“Most people with COPD have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, or – most likely – both. These lung diseases block airflow making it difficult to breath. Unfortunately, there is not cure for COPD.” said Ashtabula County Medical Center Pulmonologist Yisa Sunmonu, MD.
People often relate emphysema or chronic bronchitis to smoking, but a person constantly around chemical fumes, heavy dust, or other air pollution can also get it. Symptoms of COPD include frequent coughing or wheezing, excess phlegm or mucus production, shortness of breath, chest tightness, or trouble taking deep breaths.
Since COPD can develop slowly, people may blow it off as seasonal allergies, a recurring chest cold, or mild flu. However, as COPD worsens over time, more and more lung damage occurs.
Dr. Sunmonu said, “When a person has COPD, the small air sacs in the lungs are damaged. These normally stretch and retract with each breath we take, but with COPD, the lungs are not able to expand and contract as easily. Air becomes trapped in the sacs or in the upper portion of our lungs and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide becomes increasingly difficult. For this reason, we want to make a diagnosis as early as possible.”
Pulmonologists diagnose COPD with a breathing test that measures lung function, as well as diagnostic images of the lungs and airways. Once the severity of the lung damage is determined, treatment plans are considered - ranging from simple breathing exercises to medication, as well as lifestyle changes.
“We have a wonderful pulmonary rehabilitation program, which provides patients with physician-developed exercises and education about nutritional efforts patients can do to lessen COPD symptoms,” Dr. Sunmonu said. “But, and I stress this with everyone, the best way to avoid further lung damage is to make significant lifestyle changes.”
These changes include avoiding tobacco smoke or harmful pollutants at work or home. People should also minimize time outside when weather forecasts predict extreme shifts in temperature or an abundance of air pollution. COVID-19, flu, and pneumonia vaccines are also helpful deterrents for infectious viruses that affect breathing.
“We also recommend patients stay active. The more we move, the more we breathe. This may seem counter-intuitive for someone who has difficulty breathing, but exercise and staying active improves lung capacity and capability,” Dr. Sunmonu said.