Smoking and COPD
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - smoking; COPD - secondhand smoke
Smoking is the leading cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking is also a trigger for COPD flare-ups. Smoking damages the air sacs, airways, and the lining of your lungs. Injured lungs have trouble moving enough air in and out, so it's hard to breathe.
For years, you've enjoyed relaxing with a cigarette in your hand, and looked forward to your cigarette breaks at work, but now, all of that smoking has caught up with you. You're coughing, wheezing, often out of breath. Could you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? Let's talk about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, for short. COPD is a lung disease that's usually caused by smoking, although some people who smoke for years never get the condition, while a few get COPD even if they've never lit up. Most people with COPD have a combination of a cough that just won't go away, called chronic bronchitis, and lung damage, called emphysema. The symptoms of COPD can sneak up on you slowly. Over time, you'll develop a cough that lingers, day after day. You'll feel tired, and have trouble catching your breath. Only your doctor can tell for sure whether this is COPD. To test for it, you'll need to breathe or blow into a machine as hard as you can, and hold that breath, as long as you can, in a test called spirometry. You may also need to have a blood test to determine how much oxygen and carbon dioxide is in your blood. If you have COPD, the ways things stand now, you'll have it for life, as there is no cure for this disease. However, there are ways to control the condition and help you breathe more easily. The first thing you do, absolutely need to do, is stop smoking, which will help slow down the damage to your lungs. A few medicines can help relieve COPD symptoms. You may breathe in a bronchodilator medicine through an inhaler to open up your airways, or take steroids to bring down the swelling in your lungs. If you're having real trouble breathing though, call your local emergency services number. You may need to visit the hospital for oxygen or breathing assistance. You may also need to take antibiotics during flare-ups, because getting an infection can make your COPD worse. Though it may be hard to exercise when you're feeling out of breath, staying active will help keep your muscles strong. Your doctor can teach you how to breathe in a different way so that you can exercise with COPD. You can help avoid the shortness of breath, the coughing, and the wheezing of COPD by butting out, kicking your cigarette habit as soon as possible. Not smoking is the absolute best way to prevent COPD. Ask your doctor about programs and medicines that may make it easier for you to quit.
Things that make COPD symptoms worse are called triggers. Knowing what your triggers are and how to avoid them can help you feel better. Smoking is a trigger for many people who have COPD. Smoking can cause an exacerbation, or flare-up, of your symptoms.
You do not have to be a smoker for smoking to cause harm. Exposure to someone else's smoking (called secondhand smoke) is also a trigger for COPD flare-ups.
Smoking damages your lungs. When you have COPD and smoke, your lungs will get damaged more rapidly than if you were to stop smoking.
You probably know by now that smoking damages your lungs, raising your risk for bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. And, you're probably well aware that lighting up also puts you at risk for many different types of cancers, as well as eye disease like cataracts and premature wrinkles, you know why you shouldn't smoke, it's just the quitting part you can't seem to get past. Let's talk about some helpful tips to help you quit smoking, for good this time. It's a familiar story, one that plays out over and over again among smokers. You vow to quit, and you have every intention of doing it, and then the cravings hit. And you can't think about anything but having a cigarette. You get irritable, and you start putting on weight. You think, Just one cigarette wouldn't hurt, would it? And then, before you know it, you're smoking again. Most smokers have tried to quit, and failed, several times. Even if you've failed before, you can still succeed at quitting. Many people have. You just need to find the technique that works for you. So, here are a few tips that can help. First, set a quit date. Write it down on your calendar and tell a few friends, so you'll be too embarrassed to back out. Before your quit date, throw out every cigarette in your house, car, and office. Also toss every ashtray, lighter, and anything else you need to smoke. Wash your clothes and clean your furniture so you won't have that smoky smell hanging around your house. Next, call your doctor. Ask about smoking cessation programs in your area. Also learn about tools that can help you quit, like medicines that reduce the urge to smoke, and nicotine replacement gums, lozenges, patches, and sprays. And then, plan what you'll do instead of smoking. If you smoke with your morning cup of coffee, drink tea or go for a walk instead. If you need a cigarette to keep your mouth busy, try chewing sugarless gum or nibble on a carrot stick. Stick to places where smoking isn't allowed, like smoke-free restaurants. And finally, reward yourself for not smoking. Put all that money that you would have spent on cigarettes into a jar. And once you've collected enough money, use it to take a trip or buy something you've wanted for a long time. Don't get discouraged. Quitting smoking isn't easy. If it were, everyone would have done it by now. Be persistent, reward yourself for the progress you've made, and keep at it until you finally conquer the urge to smoke.
Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do to protect your lungs and keep your COPD symptoms from getting worse. This can help you stay more active and enjoy life.
Tell your friends and family about your goal to quit. Take a break from people and situations that make you want to smoke. Keep busy with other things. Take it 1 day at a time.
Ask your health care provider to help you quit. There are many ways to quit smoking, including:
- Nicotine replacement therapy
- Support groups, counseling, or stop-smoking classes in person or online
It is not easy, but anyone can quit. Newer medicines and programs can be very helpful.
List the reasons you want to quit. Then set a quit date. You may need to try quitting more than once. And that's OK. Keep trying if you do not succeed at first. The more times you try to quit, the more likely you are to be successful.
Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Secondhand smoke will trigger more COPD flare-ups and cause more damage to your lungs. So you need to take steps to avoid secondhand smoke.
- Make your home and car smoke-free zones. Tell others you are with to follow this rule. Take ashtrays out of your home.
- Choose smoke-free restaurants, bars, and workplaces (if possible).
- Avoid public places that allow smoking.
Setting these rules can:
- Reduce the amount of secondhand smoke you and your family breathe in
- Help you quit smoking and stay smoke-free
If there are smokers at your workplace, ask someone about policies regarding if and where smoking is allowed. Tips to help with secondhand smoke at work are:
- Make sure there are proper containers for smokers to throw away their cigarette butts and matches.
- Ask coworkers who smoke to keep their coats away from work areas.
- Use a fan and keep windows open, if possible.
- Use an alternative exit to avoid smokers outside the building.
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Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) website. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: 2020 report.
Han MK, Lazarus SC. COPD: clinical diagnosis and management. In: Broaddus VC, King TE, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 64.
Rochester CL, Nici L. Pulmonary rehabilitation. In: Broaddus VC, King TE, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 139.
Last reviewed on: 10/23/2021
Reviewed by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.