Short of breath?

Careful, that might be more than age catching up with you.

What’s the fourth leading cause of death in America?

No, it’s not cancer. It’s COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sometimes known as chronic bronchitis or emphysema. About 12 million Americans suffer from it, but equally frightening is the fact that an estimated 12 million more are victims and don’t even know it, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

COPD victims’ airways are partially blocked, making the lungs work harder to get air in and out. The disease develops steadily over time, and COPD victims may find that even simple tasks tire them more quickly, making them pause to “catch their breath.” Slowly, some of the activities people have been enjoying for years are abandoned. Even tasks like getting dressed or brushing your teeth become hard, tiring work.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Constant coughing, sometimes called “smoker’s cough”
  • Shortness of breath while doing activities you used to be able to do
  • Excess sputum production
  • Feeling like you can’t breathe
  • Not being able to take a deep breath
  • Wheezing

Healthy airways and air sacs in the lungs are elastic, returning to their original shape after being stretched when filled with air. But with COPD the lungs’ air sacs lose their elasticity. The airways can also become swollen or thicker than normal with increased mucus production. Now victims must work hard to breathe both in and out.

But many people will, unfortunately, simply put their shortness of breath down to age.

COPD occurs mostly in the over-40s, especially but not exclusively in people with a history of smoking, even if they have now quit. In fact, smoking is the most common cause of COPD, accounting for nine out of 10 COPD-related deaths.

But smoking is far from the only cause. COPD can also strike people who have had long-term exposure to things that irritate the lungs, like certain chemicals, dust, air pollutants or fumes in the workplace – common occurrences in the truck driving business.

The problem may also be in your genes. 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 suffer from it. People with AAT deficiency can get COPD even if they have never smoked or had long-term exposure to pollutants.

The good news is that diagnosis involves a widely available, non-invasive breathing test that can detect COPD before the symptoms become severe. The test is done with a spirometer, which measures the amount of air (volume) a person can blow out of the lungs and how fast he or she can blow it out (flow).

There are other things you can do to lessen your risk. Quitting smoking, keeping your exposure to pollutants and lung irritants such as dust, fumes and second-hand tobacco smoke to a minimum and visiting your doctor regularly are effective front-line defenses. If you suffer from COPD, get a flu shot. Flu can cause serious problems for people with COPD. You should also ask your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine.

To find out more, go to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s resource at www.learnaboutcopd.org.

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