There’s treatment, hope and help for COPD

It’s a sad fact that people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD, have trouble doing what connects us to life – they can’t easily breathe.

The disease can affect their airways, air sacs or both. Remarkably, it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association– affecting more than 11 million Americans we know about, and another estimated 24 million who go undiagnosed.

Pulmonologist Kathrin Nicolacakis, MD, says that COPD is often misunderstood. She sheds light on four common myths about COPD:

Myth 1: Only smokers get COPD

Fact: While COPD is often associated with smoking, and rightly so, there are a substantial number of people with this condition who never smoked.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 42 percent of COPD sufferers are former smokers, 34 percent are current smokers and the rest – which make up 24 percent — never lit a cigarette.

Myth 2: There’s no treatment for COPD

Fact: There is a lot that can be done for COPD patients, says Dr. Nicolacakis. “People need to know that COPD is treatable, and if you have symptoms, there are many options to help you feel better,” she says. “We may not be able to reverse it, but we can control the symptoms and prevent further damage to the lungs,” she adds.

Dr. Nicolacakis asks all her COPD patients to quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of exercise and keep up on their influenza and pneumonia vaccines. “Taking care of themselves in these ways can sometimes help offset the complications of COPD,” she says.

It’s also important to take your medications. Your doctor will tailor them to your needs.

Medications include inhalers that open your airways or reduce airway inflammation, supplemental oxygen, and alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) infusions if you have an inherited deficiency. PDE4 enzyme inhibitors can reduce inflammation in some patients. You also need flu and pneumonia vaccines to prevent serious illness.

Myth 3: If you have COPD, it’s too late to quit smoking

Fact: “Some people think that once they are diagnosed with COPD, there’s no benefit to quitting smoking,” Dr. Nicolacakis says. “But it’s never too late to quit because it will slow the progression of the disease.”

Unfortunately, the lung damage that characterizes COPD is cumulative, which means that it doesn’t go away just because you kicked the habit, but there’s still a lot of benefit to quitting, Dr. Nicolacakis says.

However, if you quit smoking early enough, near-normal lung function may return. Try a smoking cessation program. Combining nicotine replacement with counseling, group support and medication is your best chance of success.

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