Breathe Easier: COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a smoking-induced lung disease. It affects more than 16 million Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema is caused by damage to the lining of the air sacs in the lungs. Smoking causes the air sacs to get holes in them. Lungs lose their elasticity and capacity to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Smoking also damages the lining of the airways, which causes chronic bronchitis (also known as “smoker’s cough”).

Patients may have emphysema in some parts of their lungs and chronic bronchitis in others; together, they create COPD.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath and inability to do things you used to do.
  • Not being able to take a deep breath.
  • Wheezing.
  • Chronic cough (a cough that lasts longer than 3 months)—with or without mucus.
  • Frequent chest colds.

A breathing test that measures lung capacity can be used in patients with COPD symptoms to diagnose the disease. Emphysema can be diagnosed with some chest X-rays.

Although there is no cure for COPD, it can be treated. Smoking cessation is the most important step. There are also breathing medications that can help decrease shortness of breath and improve quality of life. Cone Health has a pulmonary rehabilitation program, which includes aerobic exercises to improve conditioning and strength training to improve breathing muscles. For advanced (stage 4) COPD, patients may need oxygen if their levels are less than 88%.

Spokesperson Background:

Rakesh Alva, MD, is a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at LeBauer Pulmonary Care and a member of Cone Health Medical Group. Dr. Alva is a 1997 graduate of Seth G.S. Medical College and KEM Hospital. He completed his residency in internal medicine and fellowships in critical care and pulmonary medicine in 2004 at Montefiore Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  Dr. Alva is also board certified in sleep medicine.

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