Losing your breath doing simple activities like dressing or shopping isn’t a sign of getting older. Troubled breathing could suggest a lung problem, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Scope of the issue

COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, has been diagnosed in more than 11 million Americans, but millions more may have the disease without even knowing it. The good news is that it is treatable — and largely preventable.

Lungs with COPD become inflamed and thicken, and the tissue where oxygen is exchanged is destroyed. The flow of air in and out of your lungs decreases and the body receives less oxygen, making it harder to breathe and remain active.

What causes COPD?

While smoking is the main cause of COPD, it can also develop through long-term exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke, dust, fumes and chemicals. Additionally, some people have a rare form of COPD due to an inherited genetic mutation that affects the body’s ability to produce a protein, alpha-1 antitrypsin, which protects the lungs.

“Many people mistake COPD symptoms as a part of aging, but shortness of breath is never normal.”

Many people mistake COPD symptoms as a part of aging, but shortness of breath is never normal. Other indicators include chronic cough, frequent respiratory infections, blueness of lips or fingernail beds, fatigue, wheezing and production of mucus. COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, and there are no known drugs to reverse the disease.

Taking action

Getting diagnosed early, quitting smoking if you are a current tobacco user, staying active and adhering to your treatment plan can improve symptoms and quality of life. Treatments for COPD include medication, pulmonary rehabilitation, supplemental oxygen, surgery, complimentary therapies and palliative care.

COPD is a manageable disease. Not all people with COPD have the same symptoms, and the optimal treatment plan will differ from person to person, so it’s important to work with your doctor to develop a plan that is suitable to your needs.

There are also ample resources for people with COPD and opportunities to connect with others living with the disease, such as the in-person Better Breathers Clubs and the virtual Living with COPD Online Support Community.  

Managing exposure

COPD is a serious chronic disease, but there are several things you can do to protect yourself. If you are a smoker, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to live a longer and healthier life. If you don’t smoke, do not start and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, so make your home smoke-free. Protect yourself against chemicals, dust and fumes in your home and work. Lastly, help fight for clean air so everyone in your community has healthy air to breathe.

If you believe you are at risk for COPD or experiencing any of the above symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible to discuss whether you are a candidate for spirometry, a test of lung function required to make the diagnosis.