Frequently Asked Questions about COPD

How common is COPD?

It has been estimated from U.S. surveys that more than 20 million adults have COPD and about half of these individuals are undiagnosed.  Among those diagnosed, many are undertreated.  Many physicians have a pessimistic view of COPD because until recently there was little to be done to alleviate suffering.  However, research over the last decade has shown that there are many treatments that can be offered to COPD patients.

Can women get COPD as easily as men?

Yes.  A generation ago many more men had the disease than women.  However with the increase in cigarette smoking among women toward end of the 20th century, more women have COPD today than men.  In fact, in 2001, for the first time, more women died of COPD than men.

How do I know if I have COPD?

Half of COPD patients don’t know they have it.  Since almost all patients with COPD are cigarette smokers, if you are a current or past smoker you are in a high-risk group.  Shortness of breath on exertion is the most common symptom to occur.  When this symptom occurs, many patients stop doing the activity that causes them stress, and therefore may never get shortness of breath because of lack of activity.  So ask yourself, are there any activities that I could do last year that I am having trouble doing this year?  If so, you may have COPD.  

Also, many patients with COPD have a chronic daily cough and expectorate sputum frequently.  This may be an early sign of COPD.  And lastly if you suffer one or more “chest colds” or “attacks of bronchitis” each year and the cough lasts for weeks rather than just a few days, underlying COPD may be the cause.

How is the diagnosis of COPD made?

Your physician will send you for a simple breathing test called a pulmonary function test.  You will blow into a machine and it will measure your lung capacity.  If it shows obstruction or airflow blockage in a patient with positive risk factors (smoking, etc), a diagnosis of COPD can be made.

Can the test tell how bad the COPD is?

Yes, the test will tell the physician whether the disease is mild, moderate, severe or very severe.

If I stop smoking will this disease go away?

No.  Unfortunately, once the damage to the lungs is present, COPD cannot be removed, even with medication.  However, if one stops smoking (even at an advanced age) the rapid decline in lung function will slow down and your outlook and symptoms will improve.  

What can be done to help people with COPD?

While there is no cure for this disease, there are a number of therapies that can be offered, depending on its severity.

  • If shortness of breath occurs only in special circumstances (such as carrying heavy packages), an inhaler can be used, as needed, to offer relief.  The inhaler contains a medication that opens up (bronchodilates) the bronchial tubes.  It can be taken several times a day and has a very good safety profile.

  • When symptoms get worse and occur throughout the day, longer acting bronchodilators are offered.  They can be effective when given once or twice a day.  

  • Other medications directed at reducing the inflammation in the bronchial tubes are given at later stages of the disease.

Can anything else be done that does not involve the use of medications?  

Yes.  Yearly flu shots are essential.  Influenza in patients with COPD can lead to severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough and sputum production and can be complicated by pneumonia.  

The pneumococcal vaccine (pneumonia vaccine) is also an important prevention.  The vaccine can offer prevention for some of the most common causes of pneumonia and COPD patients are more susceptible to getting pneumonia.

In addition, Mount Sinai has a pulmonary rehabilitation program for COPD.  This is a structured exercise program that helps COPD patients improve their activities of daily living and offers emotional support to those who are having difficulties because of an impaired quality of life.

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