Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a leading cause of death and disability in this country. COPD encompasses many lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, all of which make it difficult to breathe. In the majority of COPD cases, smoking is the main culprit.

COPD develops slowly, and people are often not diagnosed with it until their 50s, when the disease has greatly affected their lung function and their lungs have been irreparably damaged.

COPD symptoms include a persistent cough with phlegm, fatigue and shortness of breath (especially during exertion), wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe) and chest tightness. These symptoms are often confused with asthma or thought of as a normal part of aging. Not everyone who has a persistent cough or phlegm develops COPD, and not everyone with COPD has a cough, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Although it is impossible to undo the lung damage caused by COPD or halt the disease altogether, diligent management of symptoms and lifestyle changes can slow its progression. But first, an accurate diagnosis is needed.

Diagnostic testing

The American Thoracic Society and the American College of Chest Physicians both recommend a spirometry test for patients who have COPD symptoms or who are at risk for COPD because of smoking and other risk factors. Spirometry, an easy, painless test, shows how well your lungs are working, the NHLBI says. For the test, you breathe hard into a large hose connected to a spirometer machine. When you breathe out, the machine measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you exhale after a deep breath.

An abnormal reading is any value lower than 85 percent of the predicted value for the individual; the predicted value is based on age, height, ethnicity and gender. Other tests used for diagnosing COPD include bronchodilator reversibility testing, chest X-ray and arterial blood gas.

A treatment plan

If you are diagnosed with COPD, your health care provider will work with you to relieve symptoms, slow progression of the disease and prevent complications. If you smoke, you should quit. Talk to your provider about methods you can use to quit smoking.

Treatment is based on whether your symptoms are mild, moderate or severe. Treatments include using corticosteroids, short- or long-acting bronchodilators, antibiotics (if needed) and inhaled steroids to reduce airway inflammation, the NHLBI says.

Your provider may also have you enroll in a pulmonary rehab program. Rehab programs include exercise, disease management training and counseling.

You should take steps to reduce your chances of developing a lung infection. These include washing your hands regularly, avoiding people who have respiratory infections and getting a pneumonia shot and an annual flu shot.

Medical Reviewer: [Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN, Lambert, J.G. M.D., Lee Jenkins ] Last Annual Review Date: 2011-05-22T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © Health Ink & Vitality Communications

Reference: Lungs, Breathing and Respiration section on Better Medicine

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive disease that makes it difficult to breathe.