Just Breathe

When It’s More Than A Cough, It May Be COPD. Reduce Your Risk.

Posted: April 27, 2013

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Early symptoms include chronic coughing with mucus production and becoming short of breath while doing everyday activities. (Photo by Illustration by photos.com)
A niggling cough, the groceries feeling heavier than ever, or more breaks on your favorite hike — some symptoms of slowing down come naturally with age.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), however, can make catching your breath, even at rest, an uphill task.

What Is COPD?
As the third leading cause of death in the U.S., COPD is typically associated with smoking; 80 percent of smokers will get the disease, according to studies presented by Stan Holland, director of pulmonary and chaplain services at Rockingham Memorial Hospital.

But, not all COPD sufferers are smokers; asthmatics can also develop the disease.

“ ‘Chronic’ refers to abnormal lung function that persists over time; ‘obstruction’ is the inability to empty lungs completely,” says Dr. Frank Barch, medical director of specialty care practices and pulmonary specialist at RMH.

There are two forms of the disease, he says: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema deals with the anatomy of the lungs, where the lung’s air sacs are broken down. Barch compares the lungs to sponges: the uniform, elastic holes in a synthetic kitchen sponge represent a healthy lung, while the misshapen holes of a natural sea sponge are more like an emphysema sufferer’s.

Chronic bronchitis, however, is characterized by a chronic cough or wheezing due to the lungs’ overproduction of mucus. Because smokers constantly irritate the lungs with pollutants, their lungs overproduce mucus.

Progressive Symptoms
Early symptoms of COPD, says Barch, includechronic coughing with mucus production, particularly in the morning, and/or becoming short of breath faster than normal while doing everyday tasks.

“[Those with signs of COPD] used to be able to go for a walk for a couple miles, but now stop to rest more frequently, or climb a flight of steps OK, but can’t carry both bags of groceries up a flight of stairs now,” says Barch.

Tightness in the chest or wheezing are also warning signs.

“Typically, patients will only seek help when having significant impairment of activities.”

Since COPD is a progressive disease, early detection is important, Barch says. The progression varies from person to person. “Some have rapid worsening in their lungs, and literally within a few years can be disabled,” he says.

“Others can go decades.”

Quitting smoking stops the damage, and is critical as benefits are highest within the first two weeks of quitting.  

From there, medications, inhalers and nebulizers can help treat COPD, either as quick fixes or long-term relief.

Smoking: COPD’s Open Window
“Prevention, prevention, prevention,” Stan Holland, director of pulmonary and chaplain services at RMH, insists is the most important aspect of COPD awareness.

Through the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, the Project Toward No Tobacco Use (TNT) educates middle school children — including seventh graders in Harrisonburg and Rockingham Counties — on the dangers of tobacco.

Parents and children alike benefit from TNT, Holland says.

“They now better can understand the impact. …  It helps to explain why we are asking you to make this huge lifestyle change. It is hard to not consider the lifestyle change when your children ask you to stop because they love you.”

For more information about tobacco cessation opportunities, contact RMH Health Education Awareness Coordinator Erica Rollins at (540) 433-4421

Contact Samantha Cole at 574-6274 or scole@dnronline.com.

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