Living with COPD

Health, Home & Family
on October 22, 2009

Dr. James Hubbard, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., is a veteran family practitioner and publisher of My Family Doctor magazine.

Like the act of breathing, you probably don't give the health of your lungs much thought. In fact, what I see most often in my practice is a husband or wife who brings in his or her spouse for an annoying and chronic—but often easily treatable—cough that the patient hasn't really noticed. Here are some of the most common questions I field about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer and more.

Q: I've had a bad cough for a couple of months. Could it be COPD?
COPD is a pair of progressive lung diseases—emphysema and chronic obstructive bronchitis—that make breathing difficult, and affects mostly smokers over the age of 40. If you fit that description and have a cough that won't go away, you could have COPD.

But COPD isn't the only ailment that can cause a nagging cough. Asthma, acid reflux, allergy-related sinus drainage down the back of your throat, and even some prescription medications can irritate the throat and lungs and cause you to cough. Regardless of what you think is the root cause, see your doctor if your cough sticks around for more than a couple of days.   

Q: Can air pollution really affect me if I'm healthy?
Although elderly people and kids are most at risk, air pollution can affect you in a range of ways—from irritating your eyes, nose, throat and lungs, to worsening asthma and emphysema or even triggering heart attacks—regardless of your age or health. Breathing dirty air for long periods of time can affect almost any part of your body, including lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, brain and nervous system. To cut down on exposure to air pollution, check the air quality daily (through your local news or and try to stay indoors on high-pollution days.

Not all harmful air pollution exists outdoors, however. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air can be up to five times more contaminated
than outside air. Improve the air inside your home with these tips:

  • Take off your shoes indoors. You can track in—and end up inhaling—viruses, mold and pesticides from the bottom of those loafers, pumps or tennis shoes. If you can't stand to go barefoot, wear house-shoes or at least put a doormat inside and outside each entrance to your home.
  • Dust with a damp cloth. Cleaning with a dry rag stirs up the pet dander, cigarette ash, dust mites and paint chips that you could inhale. Clean with a just-wet cloth, then wash the rag in hot water.
  • Burn the right wood in your fireplace. Inhaling any wood smoke can be unhealthy for your lungs—and soft woods like pine and wet, moldy logs produce more smoke than dry, seasoned wood like oak, maple, birch and poplar.

Q: Do women get lung cancer as often as men?
About 16,000 more men than women were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, but the gap between the sexes has narrowed significantly over the last few decades. In fact, between 1930 and 1997, the number of lung cancer deaths among U.S. women has increased by a shocking 600 percent. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of lung cancer decreased by nearly 2 percent per year for men from 1991 to 2005, while increasing by about half a percentage point per year for women. Research suggests that women's genes are more vulnerable to the cancer-causing effects of cigarette smoke and that estrogen in women's bodies can affect cancer growth.

Q: I was just diagnosed with COPD. Does that mean I'll have to get a lung transplant?
In nearly all cases, no. Although about one-third of the lung transplants completed each year are for COPD patients, the procedure is rare and done only as a last resort—and even then you'll have to meet strict criteria regarding age and overall health. If you've just been diagnosed, your first move should be to quit smoking. You won't be able to reverse the harm you've done to your lungs, but by kicking the habit you'll slow down further damage, enabling you to more efficiently use your remaining lung function. To help improve your breathing, talk to your doctor about inhalers and breathing exercises and stay up to date on immunizations for respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza, which can be especially dangerous for people with COPD. Exercise such as walking, swimming and biking also can strengthen your respiratory muscles and help you breathe a little easier.