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The Burden of Obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD) study found that one in ten people worldwide has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, either chronic bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, or a combination of the three. Are you among them?

An astonishingly large number of people around the world suffer from COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which may be emphysema, asthma, or chronic bronchitis, any two of these conditions, or even all three. Up to 20 percent of the population of South Africa has the disease. About 32 million people in the United States has been diagnosed with COPD. Worldwide, one person in 10 has the condition. [1] The greatest challenges in smoking and shortness of breath treatment are posed by COPD.

What Is COPD?

It's possible to have emphysema, asthma, or chronic bronchitis and not have COPD.

  • Emphysema is defined as an abnormal, permanent enlargement of the air spaces leading to the terminal bronchioles, the breathing passages where there is no longer any tough cartilage to define their size and shape. If these passages are enlarged, the lungs can't generate enough "suction" to draw in air.
  • Bronchitis is a condition of inflammation of the bronchioles. Their linings swell so the air passages aren't large enough to let enough air in. When bronchitis lasts three months or longer, it is said to be chronic.
  • Asthma is defined as a reactive airway disease. The hallmark of asthma is the narrowing of air passages in response to a change in the atmospheric environment, typically a chemical in the air, a food, stress, exercise, or dust.

A diaognosis of COPD is a kind of amalgamation of all three conditions, in which aggravation of one causes symptoms in the other. When these conditions have progressed to COPD, disease symptoms typically include:

  • Shortness of breath that fails to respond to treatment, getting worse and worse.
  • Exercise intolerance.
  • Usually, altered mental status.

In people who have COPD primarily with chronic bronchitis, there is productive cough, coughing up phlegm. Dyspnea (shortness of breath) isn't necessarily constant. They get chest and throat infections frequently. They tend to gain weight over time, and develop a combination of heart and lung problems.

In people who have COPD primarily with emphysema, cough is usually non-productive. There is no phlegm (usually, although there may be phlegm with lung infections). Dyspnea gets worse and worse over time, and defies commonsense shortness of breath treatment. Instead of weight gain, there is weight loss, and the final stages of the disease involve respiratory failure, but not usually heart problems. [2]

Smoking and Shortness of Breath Treatment

Not every one who smokes develops COPD. Not everyone who has COPD is or has ever been a smoker. About 70 percent of smokers, one study found, develop some breathing problems, but not necessarily COPD [3]. In a large, multi-ethnic study of smokers and non-smokers who got COPD:

  • About 17 percent of people who had ever smoked developed the disease after the age of 45.
  • About 6 percent of people who had never smoked also developed the disease after the age of 45.
  • Of the men who had never smoked, 7 percent developed COPD.
  • Of the women who had never smoked, 27 percent developed COPD. [4]

The conclusion to be drawn from these statistics isn't that you might as well smoke because you can get COPD anyway, or you can do a little smoking and shortness of breath treatment will take care of it for you. You are almost three times more likely to get COPD if you smoke than if you don't. But you should pay attention to possible symptoms of COPD even if you have never smoke. People of sub-Saharan African heritage are particularly prone to developing COPD whether or not they smoke.

When Is It Time to See the Doctor?

COPD is something that often responds to natural ways to manage dyspnea in the short term, but medical intervention is always necessary. The first time you see the doctor, he or she will rule out other problems that can cause similar symptoms.

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome is a condition of low oxygen levels that comes on "acutely," suddenly, not over a period of months or years. It can be caused by bacterial infections of the bloodstream, or swallowing an object that goes into the windpipe, or drug overdose, pancreatitis, or massive blood tranfusions. [5]
  • Bacterial pneumonia produces phlegm. The color of the phlegm is a good indicator of which species of bacteria is causing the infection. There is usually a fever, along with tachycardia (faster pulse). [6]
  • Congestive heart failure results in dyspnea, but usually also the accumulation of fluid in the feet and legs, and possibly the hands and torso. [7]
  • Empyema (not to be confused with emphysema) is an accumulation of pus around a lung, usually one to two weeks after inhaling a foreign object. [8]
  • Heart attack may cause pain in the "wrong" places, but it will be diagnosed with a combination of enzyme tests and EKG. [9]
  • Pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung, may present itself as intense chest pain or no chest pain, abdominal pain, fever, a previously unnoticed atrial flutter, and/or cough that produces sputum. Blood tests usually can rule it out but don't rule it in. [10] These are symptoms that require emergency medical treatment.
These dire problems don't linger for months or years. The longer you have been dealing with your symptoms, the more likely the problem is to be COPD. Only your doctor, however, can make the diagnosis.

Any time you simply can't catch your breath, you should to an emergency room. If you haven't been able to breathe comfortably for several months, on the other hand, you should make an office appointment (and keep it) to see your doctor right away. COPD  can be a manageable disease. It's not always a death sentence. The sooner you start treatment, the longer and more enjoyable your life will be.

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