If daily activities leave you short of breath, listen to your lungs

Are you always stopping and resting because you’re short of breath, wheezing or coughing? Do you find that you have trouble with simple, daily activities like climbing stairs, carrying groceries or gardening? If this sounds like you, your lungs could be trying to tell you something. You could be experiencing symptoms of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), a serious lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe.

James Kiley, Ph.D., director of the Division of Lung Diseases at the NHLBI, part of the National Institutes of Health, answers questions about COPD symptoms, risks and diagnosis.

Q. I haven’t heard much about COPD, is it a common disease?

A: COPD, which recently surpassed stroke as the third leading cause of death in the United States, is more common than you think. Each year, COPD claims more lives than breast cancer and diabetes combined.

Unfortunately, half of the people who have COPD are unaware that they are suffering from the disease. This is primarily because people who are at risk for COPD dismiss early symptoms as a normal result of aging or being out of shape, therefore don’t think it warrants a visit to the doctor.

Q. What the symptoms of COPD I should be looking for in myself and others?

A: In COPD, sometimes referred to as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs are partially blocked, which makes it hard to breathe.

Some of the most common symptoms you may notice in yourself or others are frequent shortness of breath, chronic cough, wheezing and excessive phlegm production. Take a look at things you do every day – like going up and down the steps, walking to the mail box, or shopping. Are these things more difficult than they used to be because you find yourself having to catch your breath? This could be COPD and it’s worth discussing with a health care provider.

Q. What are the most common causes of COPD?

A: Smoking accounts for as many as nine out of 10 COPD-related deaths. However, as many as one out of six people who have COPD never smoked. It can also be environmental – maybe you are exposed to chemicals, dusts and pollutants where you live or work. Or maybe you are exposed to secondhand smoke.

In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT, deficiency. While very few people know they have AAT deficiency, it is estimated that close to 100,000 Americans have it.

Q. What should someone do if they are experiencing these symptoms?

A: Regardless of their smoking history, if someone is experiencing these symptoms, they should talk with their health care provider and ask to take a simple breathing test called spirometry. It is quick and easy and can be taken right there in the doctor’s office. The earlier a person gets diagnosed with COPD and receives treatment, the better their chance to improve quality of life.

Q. My doctor has diagnosed me with COPD, how do I begin managing my symptoms?

A: There is no cure for COPD, but there are ways to make living with it a lot easier.

If you smoke, the best thing you can to do prevent more damage to your lungs is to quit. Ask your doctor or health care provider about new options for quitting. The “COPD Learn More Breathe Better” campaign also partners with the American Lung Association and the COPD Foundation, which are both great resources for smoking cessation information and support.

Your health care provider may also suggest one or more of the following options: medications – usually in the form of an inhaler – pulmonary rehabilitation, exercise, avoiding exposure to pollutants that may further irritate your lungs or oxygen treatment in severe cases.

Q. Where can I find more information about COPD?

A: You can find out more by visiting COPD.nhlbi.nih.gov. This educational website is part of the “COPD Learn More Breathe Better” awareness campaign from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.