Get the basic explanations of COPD and asthma; understand how they can be prevented, diagnosed and treated; and get tips on managing both conditions—particularly in the winter.
COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. When someone has COPD, they may experience breathlessness/shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, and production of mucus/phlegm. All of these symptoms can affect their quality of life and daily function. COPD is the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S., and prevention and careful management is critical in delaying the onset or effects.
Asthma is a lung disease with two main components: constriction, which is the tightening of the airways, and inflammation, when the airways swell and are irritated. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, and inability to catch your breath.
Preventing Lung Disease
As a respiratory therapist, I can’t emphasize enough the important of preventing lung disease BEFORE it starts. The single most important step in preventing these diseases is to not smoke, and if you do smoke, QUIT.
- Quitting is easier said than done, but by quitting smoking, you may add years to your life and life to your years.
- Avoid triggers (dust, mold, strong odors/scents, pollution, stress) that your body is particularly sensitive to.
- If you work around dust and chemicals, protect yourself with the appropriate mask designed for that material, which should be provided by your employer.
- Avoid cigarette/tobacco smoke—first AND second-hand. “Third-hand” smoke, which is the residue left on clothing and furniture, is bad as well. So avoid places where people smoke indoors.
- Proper nutrition, hydration and good health habits overall are good for your entire body—lungs included! (If you’re having problems with thick mucus, being well-hydrated can help with that.)
- If certain lung diseases run in your family, such as asthma, alpha-1 anti-trypsin deficiency, etc., partner with your doctor for any needed screenings, tests and preventive care.
- If you notice a persistent change in your breathing, such as a cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, etc. see your doctor.
Diagnosing COPD and Asthma
When diagnosing COPD and asthma the following is all considered and gathered by your physician:
- Exposures/lifestyle/work history
- Family history
- An overall assessment
A commonly used test is a pulmonary function test, also known as a PFT. A PFT entails several breathing tests, checking for lung capacity and speed of inhalation and exhalation. A breathing treatment may be given to see if it changes the test results when the test is repeated.
If you or a loved one are affected by COPD/asthma, Deaconess sponsors a Better Breathers support group. For more information, visit our calendar of events.
Dealing with COPD and Asthma
Staying active is important to help your lungs stay conditioned. If you don’t regularly use your breathing muscles, they become weaker and weaker, and you use them less efficiently. That can set up more problems, such as increased susceptibility to infection. Air needs to be exchanged. Follow the advice of your doctor and other health care professionals to find out which activities are best for you, and how much you should do.
Keep appointments with your primary care doctor and specialists, so that they can help you manage your COPD symptoms.
Special tips for winter
In the winter, several things happen that cause respiratory patients to suffer.
The cold air outside can be a significant irritant to airways. When a COPD/asthma patient inhales dry, frigid air, the airways can tighten almost instantly. The warm, very-dry, stagnant indoor air also creates problems. Without air exchange, and by people “re-breathing” so much of the same air over the winter months, illnesses are easily exchanged. That’s why the flu season peaks January – March.
Normal, healthy airways have warm and moist air. The body has mechanisms for making inhaled air warm and moist, and for clearing secretions. These natural processes don’t function properly among those with COPD. There are some things that can be done to help manage and/or prevent these problems during the winter.
- First, limit your time in the cold air. You may be able to breathe through a scarf over your nose and mouth. This can warm the air somewhat, but be careful that it’s not even more difficult to breathe.
- Continue your regular maintenance therapies. This may include inhaled long-acting bronchodilators, anti-inflammatories, and other prescribed treatments. If you have regularly-scheduled breathing treatments, it’s very important to not miss them!
- Avoid people who are sick! This may mean limiting your social, church and family activities during this time of year. Influenza is very dangerous for people with severe COPD and asthma, and special precautions should be taken.
- If you haven’t gotten a flu shot this year, do it! (Unless you have specific medical reason not to.) Immunity usually starts 2 weeks after the shot. And practice good hygiene (washing hands, don’t touch your face, etc.), and avoid those who, well, don’t have good hygiene, such as not covering coughs & sneezes.