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Don’t let COPD take your breath away

It’s the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more women than men, yet many people haven’t even heard of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is a term used to describe a group of lung diseases, usually chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that make it hard to breathe. In 90 percent of COPD cases, cigarette smoking is the cause. Experts think the increase in female smokers since the 1940s may be to blame for the rise in COPD deaths among women. Other causes of COPD include on-the-job exposure to dust and chemicals and a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

But COPD doesn’t just affect your breathing. It can also cause high blood pressure and heart problems and put you at greater risk for lung cancer and depression.

Looking for signs

COPD can be difficult to catch early. It develops slowly, so symptoms may not appear until middle age, when the lungs have usually already suffered significant damage. Over time, the following symptoms of COPD get worse:

  • cough that won’t go away
  • cough accompanied by mucus
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • recurring respiratory infections

If you have any of these symptoms, see your health-care provider immediately. He or she can perform breathing tests to rule out other conditions, such as asthma, and confirm COPD.

Prevention is key

Prevention is essential, as there’s no cure for COPD, though medications and other therapies can help you live more fully with the condition. To reduce your risk:

Kick butt. Better your odds of quit-smoking success by being prepared:

  • Set a quit date and mark it on your calendar.
  • Start to cut back before your quit date.
  • Ask your healthcare provider for help; this may include advice on over-the-counter quit-smoking aids or prescriptions for nicotine inhalers, sprays or drug therapy.
  • Consider joining a smoking cessation program or support group.
  • Throw out all smoking paraphernalia, such as ashtrays and lighters, and avoid hanging out where people smoke.
  • Be prepared for withdrawal symptoms—they will eventually subside.
  • Eat healthfully and exercise to avoid weight gain. Many people are tempted to go back to cigarettes when the scale starts to creep up.
  • Stay away from smoke. If you’re a nonsmoker, avoid secondhand smoke to reduce your risk of developing COPD.
  • Protect yourself at work. If your job exposes you to chemical fumes or dust, talk with your manager about measures to reduce your exposure, such as wearing a mask.