Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to two related lung diseases: Chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
They are among the most common reasons the people of Harlan County are admitted to the hospital, and we treat them every day.
COPD is characterized by obstructed airflow to the point it interferes with normal breathing. Because bronchitis and emphysema frequently co-exist, physicians prefer the term COPD. It does not include other obstructive diseases such as asthma.
While the lungs can be resilient organs, they are not indestructible. Once damage is done, it cannot be undone; only managed.
The best way to protect yourself from serious breathing problems is to take steps to prevent COPD before it starts. If you have already been diagnosed with COPD, all you can do is take steps to prevent complications and slow the progress of the disease.
The best way to prevent COPD is to not smoke or to quit smoking now because smoking is the leading cause of COPD. If you smoke, talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit.
Also, try to avoid lung irritants that can contribute to COPD. Examples include secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust. For example, if your home is painted or sprayed for insects, have it done when you can stay away for a while. Keep your windows closed and stay at home (if possible) when there’s a lot of air pollution or dust outside.
If you have COPD, the most important step you can take is to quit smoking. Quitting can help prevent complications and slow the progress of the disease. You also should avoid exposure to the lung irritants mentioned above.
Follow your treatments for COPD exactly as your doctor prescribes. They can help you breathe easier, stay more active, and avoid or manage severe symptoms. Talk with your doctor about whether and when you should get flu (influenza) and pneumonia vaccines. These vaccines can lower your chances of getting these illnesses, which are major health risks for people who have COPD.
Probably most importantly, if you have COPD, it’s important to get ongoing medical care. Take all of your medicines as your doctor prescribes. Make sure to refill your prescriptions before they run out. Bring a list of all the medicines you’re taking when you have medical checkups.
Also, ask him or her about other diseases for which COPD may increase your risk, such as heart disease, lung cancer and pneumonia.
You can do things to help manage COPD and its symptoms. For example:
• Do activities slowly.
• Put items that you need often in one place that’s easy to reach.
• Find very simple ways to cook, clean, and do other chores. For example, you might want to use a small table or cart with wheels to move things around and a pole or tongs with long handles to reach things.
• Ask for help moving things around in your house so that you won’t need to climb stairs as often.
• Keep your clothes loose, and wear clothes and shoes that are easy to put on and take off.
Depending on how severe your disease is, you may want to ask your family and friends for help with daily tasks.
It is important to prepare for emergencies. Patients with COPD must know when and where to seek help for their symptoms and to get emergency care for severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking.
Call your doctor if you notice that your symptoms are worsening or if you have signs of an infection, such as a fever. Your doctor may change or adjust your treatments to relieve and treat symptoms.
Seek emergency help if your usual medications aren’t working and:
• It is unusually hard to walk or talk (such as difficulty completing a sentence);
v Your heart is beating very fast or irregularly;
• Your lips or fingernails become gray or blue; and
• Your breathing is fast and hard, even when you are using your medication.
Living with COPD can cause fear, anxiety, depression, and stress, all of which may affect your health. Talk to all the professional members of your health care team. If you’re very depressed, your doctor may recommend medicines or other treatments that can improve your quality of life.
Support from family and friends also can help relieve stress and anxiety. Let your loved ones know how you feel and what they can do to help you.
I will be discussing these issues and your concerns in person on Thursday at the hospital’s monthly Lunch & Learn program in the One West Conference Room. I hope to see you there at noon.
Bushan Bollavarum, M.D. is a pulmonary and critical care specialist at the ARH Daniel Boone Clinic in Harlan.