Fighting for Air

Is there anything worse than not being able to breathe?

To be able to take a deep, cleansing breath is one of the blessings of life that we rarely think about — until we can no longer do it. Sufferers of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) know the feeling. They live with it every
day.

COPD is a group of diseases of the lungs that make breathing difficult. As the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, it is also the main cause of death and illness worldwide. Two of the main conditions in this group are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The lungs contain airways called bronchi and bronchioles. The bronchioles open into tiny air sacs called alveoli. With a normal lung, you take a breath and the air sacs fill up. Upon exhalation, the air sacs deflate. The natural elasticity present in the bronchioles and alveoli helps to force air out of the lung. With emphysema, that elasticity is damaged and alveoli will lose their shape. Less air can get in so you always feel short of breath.

In chronic bronchitis, the walls of the bronchial tubes are constantly inflamed and filled with thick mucus. Breathing becomes difficult.

Unfortunately, most people who have COPD have both of these conditions. The symptoms with these diseases are obvious: difficulty in breathing, shortness of breath, a persistent cough that is worse in the morning, having a cough that produces sputum (mucus).

For the most part, the main cause of COPD is long-term smoking. COPD takes a long time to develop over many years. With chronic bronchitis, when you develop a cough from smoking, if you stop smoking early enough, the cough may go away. Although smoking is the major culprit, long-term exposure to other pollutants or irritants in the air including secondhand smoke, contribute to the development of COPD.

Treatment focuses on slowing the progression and management of this group of diseases since there is no known cure. If you are smoking, please stop. Supportive care is available. Oxygen therapy may be necessary. Exercise as much as you can. It increases your capacity to breathe. The treatment plan will vary according to how much damage has been done.

The bad news is that damage to your lungs from COPD is irreversible. The good news is that it does not have to get so bad that you are disabled. There is help and hope out there for you. Bad habits, an unhealthy personal environment and/or uncontrolled health problems all have a solution.

Reduce your risks and save your life.

—Written by Betty Tryon, R.N.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute
medical advice. Consult with your physician for questions regarding
this topic.