Listening to Our Lungs – More Important Now Than Ever

TULLAHOMA, TN (October 30, 2020) - According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, often called COPD, is now the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S. More than 16 million Americans have been told they have COPD, and yet, there are likely many people in our community who are completely unaware they are living with this disease.

“COPD is a serious lung disease, but is actually an umbrella term for various conditions involving damage or inflammation of the lungs, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis,” said Dr. Timothy Crater, internal medicine, board-certified. “In people who have COPD, the tubes carrying air in and out of the lungs are partially blocked, making it harder to get air in and out.”

COPD is typically a progressive condition, as the elasticity of the air sacs in the lungs gradually decreases. When it’s severe, shortness of breath and other symptoms of COPD can interfere with even basic tasks, such as light housework, walking, and even washing and dressing. COPD is a leading – and growing – cause of disability. As there is currently no cure, the primary goal during COPD Awareness Month in November is prevention and early intervention.

Smoking is far and away the most significant cause of COPD. In fact, an estimated 90 percent of COPD cases are related to smoking – this includes both primary and second hand smoke, and the smoke from cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Smoking causes toxins to be inhaled directly into the lungs, resulting in lung irritation in the short term, and lung tissue damage in the long run. However, recent research has been focused on additional toxins and irritants, including bleach, alcohol, and various disinfectants. There appears to be a clear link between long-term use of these substances and the onset of COPD.

“There are likely millions of Americans living with COPD who are unaware they even have the disease, and who are therefore failing to receive treatment,” said Dr. Crater. “While there is no cure for COPD, effective treatments are critical to prevent the deterioration of the patient’s quality of life.”

Some symptoms of COPD may be confused with those of other, less serious conditions. It’s important to recognize the symptoms, combined with your personal risk factors, and to consult with a physician if there is any doubt. Here are some of the most common symptoms, in basic order of advancing stages of the disease:

  • Chronic or constant coughing or ’smoker’s cough’
  • Shortness of breath during your typical activities
  • Excess sputum/mucus production
  • Wheezing sound when breathing

Misdiagnosis of COPD is common, so it’s important to work with your primary care physician and/or a pulmonologist to accurately evaluate the condition of your lungs. The most common diagnostic tools include chest X-ray, chest CT scans, and spirometry, which test the overall function of your lungs.

If you receive a diagnosis of COPD, treatment options will vary depending on the severity and nature of your symptoms. These include bronchodilators, steroids, oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation in the earlier stages. If non-invasive treatments are unsuccessful in slowing the rate of the disease, surgical options may be considered.

The CDC reports that having COPD (including emphysema and chronic bronchitis) is known to increase your risk of severe illness from COVID-19. If you have been diagnosed with COPD, the CDC recommends that you continue taking your current medications; make sure that you have at least a 30-day supply of your medicines; avoid triggers that make your symptoms worse; and call your healthcare provider if you have concerns about your condition or feel sick.

If you need an evaluation of your lung health, or help with managing a chronic cough, talk to your primary care doctor. If you do not have a primary care physician and have concerns about your lung health, you can contact Dr. Timothy Crater, internal medicine, board-certified, at 931-455- 7767; practice locations in Tullahoma and Manchester.