That little cough may be first sign of COPD

Since it’s COPD Awareness Month I was doing some research and found this interesting statistic: twelve to twenty-four million Americans may have the condition and not know it.

How can that be? Doesn’t it have significant debilitating symptoms? It’s the third leading cause of death in the U.S. How can you not know you have it?

“Most people with COPD develop symptoms that cause them to make appointments to see their doctors. The severity of your symptoms depends on the amount of lung damage you have. However, it’s possible to have lung damage without having any symptoms,” Healthline says.

You most likely know that COPD is an umbrella term used to describe lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma and some forms of bronchiectasis. It won’t surprise you to know that almost 90 percent of those diagnosed with COPD are, or were, smokers.

“One of the first signs of COPD is usually a long-term or chronic cough. Coughing helps to protect the airways from inhaled irritants such as cigarette smoke. It also helps to remove phlegm (mucus) from the breathing passages. Although the lungs are responding normally to irritation, a chronic cough is an indication that the lungs aren’t functioning normally,” Healthline explains.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says that in order to understand COPD we need to understand how our lungs work. Here’s their explanation:

“The air that you breathe goes down your windpipe into tubes in your lungs called bronchial tubes or airways. Within the lungs, your bronchial tubes branch into thousands of smaller, thinner tubes called bronchioles. These tubes end in bunches of tiny round air sacs called alveoli.

“Small blood vessels called capillaries run through the walls of the air sacs. When air reaches the air sacs, oxygen passes through the air sac walls into the blood in the capillaries. At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from the capillaries into the air sacs. This process is called gas exchange. The airways and air sacs are elastic. When you breathe in, each air sac fills up with air like a small balloon. When you breathe out, the air sacs deflate and the air goes out.

“In COPD, less air flows in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following: the airways and air sacs lose their elastic quality; the walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed; the walls of the airways become thick and inflamed, and/or the airways make more mucus than usual, which can clog them.”

Back to Healthline and their description of symptoms. The second red flag is seeing an increase in mucus. “Tobacco smoke and other irritants can lead to the production of up to three times the normal amount of mucus,” they say.

Another early sign of COPD is shortness of breath. “Breathlessness is when your lungs take more effort than usual to move air in and out. Initially, breathlessness may occur only with increased physical activity, such as playing sports or walking uphill,” Healthline says.

“Fatigue or tiredness is another common symptom in people with COPD,” they say. If you’re feeling a lack of energy or stamina or if you’re more tired than usual you probably should talk to your healthcare provider.

Long-term exposure to lung irritants such as second-hand smoke, air pollution and chemical fumes or dust in the environment can put non-smokers at risk for the disease. There’s also a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency that can cause COPD.

COPD develops slowly. “Symptoms often worsen over time and can limit your ability to do routine activities. Severe COPD may prevent you from doing even basic activities like walking, cooking, or taking care of yourself,” NHLBI says.

Prevention is obvious. Quit smoking or better yet, never start. Avoid second-hand smoke and other airborne irritants. If you think you might have a lung problem see your healthcare professional.

The damage done to your airways and lungs cannot be reversed, however treatment and lifestyle changes can help you feel better, be more active and slow the disease’s progress.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.