Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a chronic lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. Although COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, many Americans are unaware that they may be living with undiagnosed COPD. Between 2007 and 2010, around 8.5 million Americans were diagnosed with COPD but 18 million had evidence of impaired lung function, suggesting COPD may be underdiagnosed. By increasing awareness and sharing the right information, COPD’s “missing millions” can get the treatment and support they need and greatly improve their quality of life.

The many causes of COPD

COPD can be caused by smoking, secondhand smoke, air pollution, dust, fumes and chemicals as well as by an Alpha-1 deficiency which is caused by genetics. Symptoms include chronic cough, shortness of breath, frequent respiratory infections, significant mucus production and wheezing. Anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should speak with his or her doctor about getting a breathing test called "spirometry" which helps diagnose COPD. 

One reason why COPD is underdiagnosed may be that people assume many symptoms such as shortness of breath are a natural part of aging. Shortness of breath should never be ignored and should always be discussed with a doctor.

Exploring all treatment options

While there is not currently a cure for COPD, there are treatments that can greatly improve quality of life, making a diagnosis an important first step. Pulmonary rehabilitation, a program of exercises and other techniques, can also help rebuild strength and reduce shortness of breath. Support groups, such as the American Lung Association’s Better Breathers Clubs, can give patients the tools they need to live their best life possible.

Shortness of breath should never be ignored and should always be discussed with a doctor

There is also a unique connection between COPD and lung cancer, as both diseases share many of the same risk factors including tobacco use, air pollution and secondhand smoke. COPD itself is also a unique risk factor for lung cancer. Many patients with COPD also meet the criteria for lung cancer screening, making talking to your doctor about your options even more important.

Getting a head start  

Prevention is always preferred over treatment. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quitting, at any age, will improve your health. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, want to quit smoking or think you may be one of COPD’s “missing millions,” speak with your doctor and learn more at Lung.org.