The healthiest move for your lungs if you're a smoker is to toss your cigarettes in the trash. Once you quit smoking, other steps can help reduce your risk for or slow the progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
COPD, the third leading cause of death in the United States, is an umbrella term for lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Twelve million adults in the United States have COPD while another 12 million go undiagnosed.
Risk factors include smoking, genetics and environmental toxins such as second-hand smoke and pollutants. Even gender and race appear to play a part, says pulmonologist Dr. Brian W. Carlin, chairman of the COPD Alliance and an assistant professor of medicine at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa. "Women and African-Americans tend to develop COPD 10 years earlier than others. We don't know why," Carlin says.
What doctors do know is that COPD is largely preventable if you don't smoke. Here are the most important things you can do to lower your risk for the disease or to slow its progression.
- Don't smoke. "Stopping smoking significantly reduces risk-period. It slows the progression of the illness. And you get benefits right away of less decrease in lung function and increased ability to exercise," Carlin says. The best way to quit: a combination of medication and counseling.
- Avoid lung irritants. "In children, second-hand smoke raises the risk of asthma, ear infections, bronchial infections and of COPD later," says Dr. Byron Thomashow, a pulmonologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital and a clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University in New York City. Protect your-and their-lungs by avoiding smoky places and people who smoke, and sidestep irritants like chemical fumes and dust. "On days of high smog concentration, stay inside," Carlin advises.
- Wash your hands. Simple as it sounds, frequent hand washing helps keep cold and flu viruses away. "That's important because the more times you get sick, the more rapidly your lung function deteriorates," Carlin says.
- Exercise. "Exercise doesn't improve lung function, but it strengthens muscles, and keeps you well and healthier," says Thomashow, board chairman of the COPD Foundation. Exercise also reduces shortness of breath and increases what you can do. Work up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking or swimming most days. Combine that with three days of hour-long strength training.
- Be a healthy weight. Being too thin-a problem in people with severe COPD-weakens lung muscles and the diaphragm, the muscle that helps lungs inhale and exhale. "If you're overweight, your lungs have to work harder to clear themselves of carbon dioxide," Carlin says. "And you put more stress on your heart."
- Eat fresh. A big step toward healthy weight and good health is eating fresh fish, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while chucking chips and sugary foods. "And the better your general health, the better you can fight COPD," Carlin says.
- Get flu and pneumonia shots. Influenza, or flu, caused by a virus, can increase the risk of exacerbations, or worsening of symptoms, which often leads to hospitalization. The cost of COPD in the United States is $50 billion. "Seventy percent of that is related to exacerbations or hospitalization because of exacerbations," Thomashow says. "An annual flu vaccine is an unbelievable tool in preventing those."
The pneumococcal vaccine protects against pneumonia caused by bacteria. If you are at risk for COPD, get a pneumonia vaccine at least once, Carlin advises. Check with your doctor about if and when you need a booster.
- Take vitamin E. According to a 2011 Cornell University study of almost 39,000 women, 600 milligrams of vitamin E every other day reduced risk of COPD by 10 percent. Researchers speculate that vitamin E may protect the lungs from damage caused by free radical molecules. "It's really too early to know if vitamin E will help," Thomashow says. "But if someone wants to take 600 milligrams of vitamin E every other day, that's OK." Still, it doesn't trump the key step: Stop smoking.