We hear a lot about the risks of lung cancer -- but less about a lung condition that's just as common and debilitating, called COPD. This term, which stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, refers to a combination of two conditions, emphysema and chronic obstructive bronchitis, both of which are caused by lung damage from smoking or exposure to other lung irritants, such as asbestos. Whether you're a smoker, a former smoker, or just unlucky, you can develop COPD as a result of damage to your lungs that gradually limits their ability to take in oxygen.
When your lungs aren't functioning at full capacity, symptoms begin to appear that are sometimes so subtle that you may not recognize them as such. And because COPD is a progressive disease that can't be slowed without treatment -- and because it's the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. -- it's critical to catch it as soon as possible. Here, seven signs that your lungs are trying to tell you they're in trouble.
1. Shortness of breath
"Many people start to experience shortness of breath, and they just think 'I'm old, I'm out of shape,' and they don't do anything about it other than cutting back their activity level," says Byron Thomashow, a physician and professor at Columbia University Medical Center and chairman of the board of the COPD Foundation. "Then when you have shortness of breath just getting to the bathroom, all of a sudden you take notice."
The problem with this, Thomashow says, is that the lung damage that constitutes COPD can't be reversed; all you can do is halt or slow the progression of the disease. And if you don't start treating it until you're already out of breath just walking around the house, you've got a lot less to work with. Not only that, but cutting back is the last thing you want to do to prevent COPD progression; maintaining and even increasing your activity level is key to keeping the lung function that you have.
One thing to look for: When you're climbing steps or exercising, do you have trouble inhaling a deep breath? An even more telltale sign: Do you take the elevator instead of the stairs to avoid this feeling? Experiment with different activities to see if you have shortness of breath when you increase your level of exertion, and note if there have been any changes over time. "I ask people, how's your breathing compared to last year -- can you do what you used to do a year ago?" says Thomashow. If you feel your ability to draw a deep breath is declining, ask your doctor to perform lung function tests to give you a clear picture of your lung health.