Your lungs have 2 main parts: bronchial tubes (also called airways) and alveoli (also called air sacs). When you breathe, the air moves down your trachea (or wind pipe) through your bronchial tubes and into your alveoli. From the alveoli, oxygen goes into your blood while carbon dioxide moves out of your blood. If you have chronic bronchitis, the lining in your bronchial tubes gets red, swollen and full of mucus. This mucus blocks your tubes, and makes it hard to breathe. If you have emphysema, your alveoli are irritated. They get stiff and can’t hold enough air. This makes it hard for you to get oxygen into and carbon dioxide out of your blood. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (also called COPD) is a chronic lung disease. Coping with the disorder can be a challenge. Until recently, most people who had COPD were grouped together and considered to have one disease. We now know that several different diseases cause this difficulty in releasing air from the lungs. Asthmatic bronchitis, chronic bronchitis and emphysema are three of the major diseases that are grouped together as COPD.
About 12 million people in the United States have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The disorder develops over many years. It is almost always caused by cigarette smoking. There is no cure for the disease. The best way to prevent or keep COPD from getting worse is to quit smoking. Other irritants can also cause this chronic lung disease. These include cigar smoke, secondhand smoke and air pollution. You may also be at risk if the air you breathe at work contains an excessive amount of dust, fumes, smoke, gases, vapors or mists. Workers who smoke are at a much greater risk if they are exposed to substances in the workplace that can cause COPD. This lung disease can cause a variety of symptoms, including chronic, persistent cough, increased mucus, shortness of breath (especially during physical activity), wheezing and/or a tight feeling in the chest.
As a COPD patient, you need clean air. Therefore, you should also avoid being around smokers and fume-laden air. During fog or smog, try to stay indoors with windows closed. If possible, use fumeless appliances for heating. Polluted air also can irritate your lungs. Try not to go out when the air quality is rated poor. But if you cannot avoid excessive air pollution, protect your mouth and nose with a mask. You should see your doctor on a regular basis – especially if you have a chest cold or any time you cough up mucus. It is also important to guard against catching the flu by getting an influenza vaccine each fall, well before winter starts. A pneumonia vaccine should also be given to anyone over age 60, and all persons with COPD. Certainly you should change any behavior that can make it worse. The single most important thing you can do for yourself is to stop smoking. In fact, if you don’t stop smoking, none of your other efforts will be as effective as they could be, and your condition will get worse.
Coping with chronic obstructive lung disease is challenging, but there are many types of treatments that can help you. These include clearing your lungs (coughing in particular), taking bronchodilator medications and corticosteroids, participating in physical activity and breathing moist or humid air. For persons with severe COPD, oxygen can be used to make breathing easier. Probably the most important tips for a patient with COPD relate to breathing itself. Try these four helpful techniques to improve your breathing:
- Relax. Being tense makes it harder to breathe.
- Breathe out through pursed lips, like when whistling. This slows down your breathing and makes each breath do more good for you.
- Lean forward while exercising. This also helps control shortness of breath.
- “Belly breathing” may also help shortness of breath. This is done by allowing your belly to stick out while breathing in and then pulling your belly in while breathing out. Remember to purse your lips when breathing out!