Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects more than 16 million people in the U.S., though many more are suspected to be living with it unknowingly. Despite how common it is, most people — outside of those who have it or have a loved one who does — know very little about it. To raise awareness, we’re sharing everything we want you to know about COPD here.

What Is COPD?

COPD is an inflammatory lung disease that keeps air from flowing properly through your lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Smoking is the predominate culprit behind COPD, which presents in two forms:

  • Chronic bronchitis, which is characterized by a persistent cough with mucus
  • Emphysema, in which the lungs become damaged over time

Most people who have COPD experience a combination of both conditions.

What are the Symptoms of COPD?

“Symptoms of COPD tend to worsen over time,” explains George Ellison, CRT, at Morgan Medical Center, “especially if you continue to smoke.” Some of the most common signs include:

  • A cough, with or without mucus
  • Tightening in the chest
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Swelling of the ankles, legs, or feet

It’s also possible to experience bouts of intensified symptoms over several days, known as exacerbations.

How Is COPD Treated?

As its name indicates, COPD is chronic, meaning there is no complete cure. But there are treatments that can improve symptoms, reduce the risk of exacerbations, and help patients continue to enjoy normal activities.

Smoking cessation is a critical component of any COPD care plan. Traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and cigars can cause further lung damage, leading to worsening symptoms and complications. While organizations like the American Lung Association offer resources online, your doctor can also work closely with you to recommend a treatment plan designed to fit your lifestyle.

In addition to quitting smoking, most COPD management plans encompass at least some form of medication. There are quick-relief medicines to help you breathe easier immediately, as well as long-acting medicines you can take daily to manage inflammation and symptoms over time. Other therapies such as pulmonary rehabilitation, supplemental oxygen, and surgery may be recommended depending on symptom severity.

Can COPD Be Prevented?

COPD can largely be prevented by avoiding smoking altogether. While it can also be caused by exposure to fumes from burning fuel, this issue is mainly seen in developing nations where homes are poorly ventilated. In addition to avoiding smoke, other lung irritants such as those from chemical fumes and air pollution should be avoided to the best possible degree.

If you’re not a smoker, the best prevention is to continue to avoid smoking and to stay away from secondhand smoke. If you’re struggling to quit smoking, you may find that a support group — either in person or online — can be a valuable tool to help you stay on track.

There’s some evidence to suggest that nutrition could also play a role in COPD prevention. Though research is limited, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables appears to reduce the incidence of COPD in both current and former smokers. Eating lots of fruits and veggies has been confirmed to help your health in other ways, so it doesn’t hurt to fill your plate with them routinely.

As your partners in preventative care, the providers at Morgan Medical Center aim to help you sidestep all serious illnesses like COPD. We also have cardiopulmonary specialists who can help you manage existing conditions through advanced care options. If you’re due for a wellness visit, schedule an appointment with one of our family medicine providers by calling 706-438-1275.