Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) manifests slowly over a period of years. Initially the symptoms are often undiscernible. Eventually, though, symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, a chronic cough that produces phlegm and a slow, progressive shortness of breath. Often this increase of breathlessness is blamed on aging — this is a mistake. Symptoms begin to show in the late stages of the disease, so as soon as you notice any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor.

COPD includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis

Bronchitis is inflammation of large- and medium-sized airways in the lungs. It can cause a cough that often brings up mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest discomfort and a low fever. It becomes chronic when a cough lasts for three months or more per year. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition that keeps coming back or never completely goes away.

Last year nearly 9 million people in the United States had a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis, resulting in more than 600 deaths. According to the American Lung Association, women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.


In emphysema, it is the tiny air sacs at the end of the airways in the lungs that are damaged. When these sacs are damaged they become larger and are not able to move as much oxygen into the blood. After these air sacs are destroyed, they cannot be replaced.

More than 4 million Americans have emphysema, which is most common among adults age 65 and older. Emphysema claims more than 9,000 lives each year.


The most significant predictor of getting COPD is a history of smoking. Other factors may include a genetic disposition. In about 1 percent of the cases, the cause is a genetic disorder that causes low levels of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin. This protein is made in the liver and secreted into the bloodstream to help protect the lungs. Another cause includes long-term exposure to dusts and chemicals such as in the workplace.

What can be done to alleviate symptoms?

Once you have COPD, it is not reversible. But you can change habits to better manage the disease.

The first and most important thing you can do for alleviating symptoms is, if you smoke, stop. Of course this is easier said than done. A 2005 article in Fast Company titled "Change or Die" states that even when people are told their life will be cut short if they do not make “difficult and enduring changes,” only 1 in 9 people will actually sustain change. Working hard to be that one, or to change the odds, is key to improving your health.

COPD often leaves you feeling tired and breathless, and the last thing you will want to do is exercise. But its importance is just below stopping smoking.

A comprehensive pulmonary rehabilitation program for people with moderate to severe COPD often meets three times a week for eight weeks. Typically the program focuses on endurance exercises to build leg strength, such as walking or stationary cycling. There are often programs available through a hospital on an outpatient basis. Several studies show that participants in pulmonary rehabilitation programs improved significantly compared with those who received no intervention.

Healthier choices are challenging to sustain long enough to make them a habit, but if you set goals, and keep working toward them, you can live a healthier and more comfortable life with COPD.



Kelly Knox is the development officer at SeniorCare, Inc., Cape Ann's local area agency on aging.

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