How to Prevent COPD
The disease we now call COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is actually made up of two respiratory illnesses, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. They tend to occur together as a result of long-term exposure to irritants. In emphysema, the tiny air sacs in the lungs weaken and stiffen, losing their ability to exhale properly and expel carbon dioxide. With chronic bronchitis, the muscles that line the airways tighten and become inflamed, making it harder for air to get through. The inflammation may lead to overproduction of mucus, which is why one of the first signs of COPD is often a chronic phlegmy cough that won't go away.
How to prevent this damage from occurring? Smoking is certainly a primary risk factor for COPD, but nonsmokers need to be on the alert as well. With COPD now the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., it's important to know how to protect yourself. Here are the top seven ways to prevent COPD.
1. Stop smoking.
There's no way around it: The majority of cases of COPD are caused by smoking, and quitting is by far the most effective thing you can do to halt the damage. Inhaling cigarette smoke (and, to some extent, other types of smoke, including pot smoke) damages the elastic fibers that allow the tiny air sacs in the lungs to expand and contract. Somewhere between one in five and one in two smokers will develop COPD; one 2003 study tested older smokers for COPD and found that 50 percent of them had the condition, but many didn't know it yet.
Byron Thomashow, professor at Columbia University Medical School and chairman of the board of the COPD Foundation, says he finds himself wishing he could fast-forward the clock "just temporarily, like in a sci-fi movie" and let smokers experience what it's going to feel like once their lungs begin exhibiting symptoms and they have irreversible damage from COPD. "I believe they'd quit immediately if they knew what was in store."
Take steps to quit and the healing begins almost immediately. Research has shown that quitting smoking halts the progressive lung damage that leads to COPD. And if you quit early enough, studies show that your lung function can stabilize and eventually resemble that of a nonsmoker of the same age.
2. Don't stop exercising, even if you can't catch your breath.
According to Thomashow, the biggest mistake he sees people make is to cut back on exercise when it's difficult for any reason, when in fact they should do just the opposite. "It's counterintuitive; you feel like you should rest and not push yourself because it's not comfortable," he says. "But it turns out that exerting yourself and getting the air into the lungs is the best thing you can do."
If you have any physical issues such as excess weight or asthma, or if you're concerned about your breathing because you're a smoker or former smoker, it's that much more important to exercise to keep your lungs strong and healthy. If you notice that you're having trouble climbing hills or increasing your speed, pay attention to those trouble spots and work up to them gradually. If you suffer from asthma, talk to your doctor about using a "rescue" inhaler just prior to or during exercise to make it easier. Over time, continuing to exercise will help you build tolerance and lung strength.
3. Be proactive about workplace safety.
While smoking gets most of the attention as the cause of COPD, other lung irritants play a significant role as well. One study found that occupational exposure to workplace dust and chemical fumes may be responsible for as many as 20 percent of all COPD cases. Lung irritants known to put someone at risk for COPD include coal dust, fibrous dust from cotton and grain, concrete dust, chemical fumes, and mineral dust associated with mining, such as cadmium and gold. Most states have strict regulations regarding air quality and workplace protection, but they aren't always enforced. Demand protection for yourself, family members, and coworkers in the form of respirators, masks, filters, and other protective equipment.