Preventing COPD

November is National COPD Awareness Month. In an effort to increase public awareness about COPD, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute sponsors an initiative each year at this time that puts focus on some aspect of COPD. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects an estimated 16 million Americans. This disease can cause your lungs to gradually lose their ability to provide a sufficient amount of oxygen to your body. Damage to the body's airways results in the hindrance of the exchanges of carbon dioxide and oxygen, which causes many serious health complications.

The first and foremost important step to take in preventing COPD is to quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. The second key to prevention is to keep your chest muscles active through aerobic exercise, stretching, strengthening, and special breathing exercises. These activites can help keep your lungs healthy and strengthen your diaphragm. It's also important to limit your exposure to wood burning fires or stoves. Individuals at risk can greatly benefit from an annual flu shot. Getting a flu shot also reduces the risk of COPD exacerbation.

Risk factors for developing COPD include:

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease - Also known as GERD, it is a form of acid reflux that can cause COPD or exacerbate it.
  • Tobacco Smoke - Whether you personally smoke or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, tobacco is a leading risk factor for COPD.
  • Occupational Exposures - Being regularly exposed to noxious fumes and dust can bring on COPD.
  • Genetics - Although rare, a genetic disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is believed to cause COPD.
  • Age - The symptoms of COPD usually don't begin until after age 40, so age is a definite risk factor.

COPD symptoms include a cough that produces excessive mucous, or smoker's cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and tightness in your chest. You may also notice more frequent chest colds that take longer to get over than before. These symptoms tend worsen over time.

When you should talk to your doctor:

  • You are a smoker or former smoker over age 40.
  • You have a family history of COPD or alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency.
  • You have persistent COPD symptoms.
  • You have a history of exposure to second-hand smoke or air pollution, or have worked with chemicals or dusts that may cause lung damage.

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