Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) describes long-term lung disease that makes it harder for people to breathe. It affects millions of people and can severely impact one’s quality of life. For COPD Awareness Month, here’s what you need to know about this serious health condition.

COPD is not a single condition.

COPD describes a group of diseases that restrict your airflow, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and certain types of asthma. “People with COPD have airways that become narrow and damaged. They may also have damaged lung tissue and mucus buildup,” said Meredith Webb, MD, a pulmonologist with Adventist HealthCare Adventist Medical Group. “In most cases, COPD can be prevented and treated by quitting smoking and by avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke and air pollution.”

Most people get COPD from smoking tobacco.

Smoking tobacco is responsible for nearly 80 percent of COPD deaths. The earlier in life you start smoking, the higher your COPD risk becomes. Though smoking is a leading risk factor, other risk factors include overexposure to air pollution and genetics.

COPD rates are highest among women.

More than seven million women in the U.S. live with COPD. The number of women who die from the disease has risen sharply in recent years. Many women do not get the help they need because they are misdiagnosed with asthma. “Research suggests COPD may be more common in women because more women smoke tobacco than men,” says Dr. Webb. “Also, women’s lungs and hormones often make them more sensitive to the effects of nicotine and air pollution compared to men.”

Most people do not experience COPD symptoms until their condition has advanced.

Many people with COPD overlook their symptoms, are misdiagnosed or wait too long to treat it. Treating COPD in its early stages is key to successfully treating the disease and maintaining your quality of life. Most people are diagnosed after they turn 40 years old, but sometimes symptoms arise earlier. The most common and important symptom of the disease is becoming short of breath while doing everyday activities. Other symptoms to look out for include:

  • Chronic coughing (smoker’s cough)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Blue lips or fingernail beds
  • Chest tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Producing excess mucus
  • Wheezing

Treatment options vary depending on your condition.

There is no cure for COPD, but a pulmonologist can help you find the best treatment for your case. Dr. Webb says effective treatment helps you breathe easier and experience fewer flare ups. “Quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke and air pollution is a critical first step in managing and treating your condition,” Dr. Webb says. “Your doctor may also suggest anti-inflammatory medications, lung rehabilitation or oxygen supplementation to improve your condition.”

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, American Lung Association, National Institutes of Health

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