COPD: The Quiet Epidemic

The lung disease affects one in four adults
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The name COPD may not be familiar to you, but it's likely the symptoms are. Someone you know is beginning to show signs that his or her lungs aren't working right -- except the symptoms can be so subtle you may not realize that's what's going on. Or -- even scarier -- it might be you, and you may have no symptoms at all, and yet your lungs have already suffered irreparable damage. Known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for the progressive nature of the damage and the fact that it prevents air from reaching all the airways in the lungs, COPD is one of the most under-recognized diseases around.

Why are doctors and researchers suddenly so concerned that people don't know about COPD? Because the latest numbers are terrifying. According to a study in the September 10, 2011, issue of The Lancet, COPD will strike one in four adults over the age of 35, a much higher percentage than previously reported. According to Andrea Gershon, the researcher who led the study, the average woman in her mid-30s is more than three times as likely to develop COPD, a progressive and potentially fatal lung disease, as breast cancer. And a man in his 30s is more than three times as likely to develop COPD as prostate cancer. Here's what we all need to know about COPD to protect ourselves.

Why COPD can be considered an epidemic

COPD may not spread from person to person as an infectious disease, but its numbers are rising, and the number of people dying from it is higher every year. Another problem is that COPD is underreported, and the disease often goes unrecognized until people are very ill. Consider these scary facts:

  • COPD is now the third-leading cause of death in America, claiming the lives of 124,000 Americans a year, according to the American Lung Association.

  • Mortality from COPD has increased 22 percent in the last decade.

  • According to the latest estimates, there may be as many as 16 million people in the United States currently diagnosed with COPD.

  • An additional 14 million or more people in the U.S. may have COPD but haven't been diagnosed because they have few symptoms and haven't sought health care yet. (Many smokers delay seeking treatment for "smoker's cough" because they dread receiving bad news.)

Who gets COPD

Best known as a smoker's disease, COPD does strike smokers and people who smoked when they were younger at much higher rates than nonsmokers. But lung damage from smoking only accounts for a portion of COPD cases, and experts are still trying to sort it all out. For example, women die from COPD in higher numbers than men, yet fewer women smoke. Other factors associated with COPD include exposure to workplace chemicals, secondhand smoke, asthma, a history of childhood respiratory disease, and other lung diseases that cause lung damage. The latest study followed, for 14 years, 13 million adults in the Canadian health registry who were in their mid-30s and older. Here's what it tells us about who gets COPD:

  • Men: 30 percent of all men will get COPD in their lifetime, and 60,000 men will die from COPD, according to the Canadian study.

  • Women: 25 percent of all women will get COPD in their lifetime, and 64,000 women a year will die from COPD. Note that although the percentage of women with COPD is lower, more women die of the disease.

  • People in rural areas: 32 percent of people who live in rural areas get COPD.

  • People in urban areas: While at lower risk than those in rural areas, 26.7 percent of urban dwellers nevertheless get COPD.

COPD risks and precautions

What causes COPD -- and how to protect yourself

Smoking is by far the highest risk factor for COPD, but it's not the only one. Here are the top six ways your lungs can get damaged, and what to do:

1. Smoking

The prevalence of COPD among smokers is still under study, but recent research has put it as high as 50 percent. That means that eventually half of all smokers will develop the disease. So what to do? If you smoke, quit now, using these ten great tips to help you stop.

2. Working in a hazardous environment

Those exposed regularly to dust, chemical fumes, and other respiratory irritants or toxins in the workplace have a higher incidence of COPD. If you work around toxins, talk to your supervisor about air quality and what can be done to improve it. Wearing a respirator mask, using air filters, and other technologies can make a big difference.

3. Suffering from asthma

This is an area where researchers are still trying to sort out a chicken-and-egg cycle, but there's no question that asthmatics develop COPD at higher rates. One recent study in Australia found that more than 40 percent of adults who had severe childhood asthma developed COPD by the age of 50 -- a 32-fold higher risk compared to the risk for those without asthma. If you have asthma, make sure you're getting good medical care and controlling your asthma aggressively, using medications and avoiding triggers to protect your lungs from damage.

4. Respiratory infections

Studies have found that people who had a history of childhood respiratory infections or who suffer repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia are at risk for COPD. While you can't change your medical history, you can make sure from now on that when you develop a respiratory infection, it's adequately treated to prevent lung damage. See a doctor for coughs and breathing problems that don't go away after a few days or if you feel phlegm or pressure in your chest.

5. Secondhand smoke

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), passive smoking is associated with a 10 to 43 percent increase in risk of developing COPD. The more exposure you have, the worse the damage. So while you don't need to worry so much about an occasional smoky bar, you do need to worry if a family member, coworker, or friend is regularly smoking near you in a closed car or room. Start being vigilant about asking people not to smoke near you, and when all else fails, go stand near an open window for the sake of your lungs.

6. Smog, smoke, and air pollution

One study found that people who live near coal-burning power plants have a higher incidence of COPD; another study found that women who cooked over wood fires had high rates of COPD. Pay attention to the air quality where you live and work, and look for ways to improve it. Don't burn wood fires in enclosed spaces, and don't burn green or wet wood, which is smokier. Use fans and open your windows when cooking, and don't be afraid to demand more stringent pollution controls from your local government if there's a violator in your area.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

almost 4 years, said...

wow maxdad, i know your comment was made over 2 years ago so i dont expect you to read mine but dam, i had a little idea but no idea ya kno. i totally understand where you are comin' from though, especially about the pain killer and dentist thing.

over 5 years, said...

My mom is 85 yrs old and in last stage of copd she has memory loss and slurring of speech she refuses to quit smoking and smoke about 1 1/2 packs aday she uses a nebulizer and has severe shortness of breath during night time the doctor has her useing the nebulizer every 4 hours seems to help but not long has alot of bloating in the adomen at night I just wondered what to expect next she has balance probles like hips sway to left and can not walk ove 100ft with out resting she has dizziness and wakes with a headach every morning

about 6 years, said...

Hi, I read your blog and i am so much impress to read because its more useful to know about Lung Disease Strikes. I don't know about more Lung Disease but now i have enough information to share with others. This information is more effective information for me and also for other people who have Fatigue Thank You so much for this information. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Lung Disease and its Treatment

over 6 years, said...

Whooping cough started me off at the age of 3 now at 65 I am suffering more than I used to but you can live with it

over 6 years, said...

it confirmed my suspicion that I am actually suffering from COPD

over 6 years, said...

The tobacco industry chose to include 22chemicals not found in natural tobacco. These were added with the specific intent to addiction. If you took the 22 chemicals they add to the tobacco in one pack it will kill a healthy rat. This doesn't include the tar and nicotine found in natural tobacco. These companys knew how these chemicals worked and how danogerous they were. But their lobbyists paid off a lot of people, doctors, surgeon generals, all politicians. Yet this is still legal. What the hell? Everything else that is a known carcinogenic is taken off the market. If I get a tooth ache my dentist is afraid to perscribe pain killers. Tobacco products have stuff in them to hook you and that's okay. The only thing you get is sick. And the pharmaceutical company's come in and say "oh my God no oxycontin for pain" its bad and addictive. That's because they make almost no money on painkillers. They do however make billions of dollars on chemo drugs, stuff like chantrix, well you only have to check the prices. But hey the insurance cos get a huge cut for hiding the actual amount the drug Co get paid. "Oh $10 copay" these rich bastards are the ones who are responsible for the death of our loved ones. I don't think for one minute they wanted to die just for a cigarette or a chew. They were victims of a culture that put money over humanity. I can't help wondering who is selling our humanity now

over 6 years, said...

I have severe, persistent, uncontrollable asthma, however...which appears to be turning into COPD. To the RN who had all of the "Helpful hints"... Never smoked a day in my life. Hate the stuff. It is one of my big triggers. The oral steroids I have to take daily to keep my lungs functioning have caused diabetes (and cataracts)...and without eating ANY carbs at all, (breakfast or lunch) my blood sugar hovers just under 200 in the afternoon. (WITH all of the diabetes meds) I can't eat any carbs until dinner, when the steroid effect wears off, and my blood sugar tanks and I crash. I am RELIGIOUS with my meds. I was a normal weight too...until all of the steroids. I now hover around 200. I am 5'9. I miss running, and my bike, and hiking was my great love...but those things are hard to do when one's top peak flow is 240 on a good day with all of the stars in alignment and all meds on board. Getting winded is a bad idea. I black out. And, I am an ancient 44 years old. And what REALLY makes me that all of the inhalers that help to some degree, are being taken off the market! God help me when the greenies succeed in pulling my Combivent off the market! Please remember...not everyone is an irresponsible idiot.

over 6 years, said...

Symptoms of COPD would be helpful.

over 6 years, said...

I'm an ICU RN. I see a lot of people die from end stage COPD. These people almost uniformly are: --either obese to morbidly obese or seriously underweight due to alcoholism, substance abuse, or lung cancer --smoke (including smoking thru their trachs, and attempting to smoke while on O2) --drink to some extent, from heavy social drinking to serious alcoholics --diabetics with A1Cs over 10 --completely non-compliant with their meds and orders --repeatedly placed on vents for respiratory failure, but won't stop doing what made them go into failure. I see these folks every single night I work. While there are a few who the only causal factor is their work history (coal miner, automotive repair, engine work in the military, textile work) the majority know they are having problems for decades before it becomes life threatening, and chose to do nothing to change their future. People like me are the ones who have to deal with weeping families, devastated children and spouses, and it's for nothing; this is rarely a condition someone gets from doing the right thing, or the good thing. If you smoke, stop. If you weigh more than 300 pounds, lose weight. If you do drugs, STOP. If you are a diabetic and your sugar is routinely over 200, get your act together and get your sugar under 120. If you drink, STOP. If you've been in the hospital with respiratory failure, ask your doctor what you can do to never be admitted for this again, and then do what he tells you. You guys are breaking my heart, because you can't Code Blue a set of dead lungs.

over 6 years, said...

Let's not burn stuff out-of-doors on our own property. Local authorities granting permits for legal burning by individuals, companies, and agencies should make details of locations, dates, and conditions public well in advance by at least posting them on a website. Then people in homes with automatic air intake systems would know to close their vents, as well as windows.

over 6 years, said...

Oh look, the news trying to give people a scare again. E-Boli is gonna strike any minute now!

over 6 years, said...

I wonder could this be connected to CHF and Stroke as well.

over 6 years, said...

There are no smokers in the U.S. that can claim ignorance as to the high risk of several diseases that come with the use of their product of choice. And those of us who refrain, avoid, and turn away from those that smoke are required to share in the medical and social costs that are never decrease. The shortest path to preventing future smokers is to require that all medical costs be absorbed by the individual. Double or triple medical insurance costs for smokers and they will quit. Seem harsh and uncaring? What about that path of slow suicide that the parent, spouse, or child had a front row seat to watch?

over 6 years, said...

I have read this and someday because i smoke tobacco i will definitely die of lung cancer.

over 6 years, said...

Cigarettes,cigars,pipe and chewing tobacco has killed or badly damaged the lungs of former friends,relatives and acquaintances .Several of them are even now fighting the battle with cancer- smokers that would not quit until it was almost too late. Two friends died within the last two months. And please, avoid second hand smoke,and live to a healthy old age.

over 6 years, said...

Throw all the cigarettes,cigars ,pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco into the garbage,and watch the rate of COPD go way down,and more people live longer.

over 6 years, said...

My husband has copd and's a very scarey disease, and one that should be taken very, very seriously.

over 6 years, said...


over 6 years, said...

Why do we allow our schools and workplaces to clean with harmful chemicals like chlorine bleach? Bleach is toxic - it kills brain cells and harms our lungs when inhaled yet we allow our children and ourselves to be exposed to it. Also this article stated that those living in rural areas are more at risk for developing COPD. I believe some of that is due to a greater amount of insecticides in the air from farms and in the cities they are used as well on lawns, etc. We are a nation that is killing off our own with the use of harmful toxins in our society.

over 6 years, said...

work hard,punish yourself and your body will get stronger... ,take lots of naps ,eat plenty sugar and fat ,take medicine everytime you feel something ..,do not drink wine at all, cheat and steal and your body will do the same ,from my experience if i quit working for more than a month i will suerly get sick , be positive and take the best route you know from your current location,...God Bless

over 6 years, said...

The day before yesterday, haveing watched aircraft criss-crossing the skies leaving the chemtrails I have been reading so much about on the internet and have seen on Youtube, and something I have noticed many times since I became aware of it, I talked to the doctor's office I use. a large association of doctors. I asked the receptionist if they were recieving many complaints of respiratory problems. I recieved a definitive yes. The last time I did the same when they were spraying, and they always seem to pick clear, non-overcast days, the answer from the doctor's office had been the same. I have read commentary where people in various cities notice adds for volunteers for respiratory studies a couple of days after these chemical sprayings, which have been occuring worldwide for years now. I believe the studies of the incidence of occurence chronologically and geographically should be compared to the reports of chemical spraying. Sites reporting this claim that life expectancy has begun to decline and various diseases have become more prevalent as a result. Google Chemtrails or "What in the world are they spraying?", or use the same at Youtube to find a host of information. I myself am not an expert, yet I have seen with my own eyes the spraying in the skies above. The evidence presented online is overwhelming.