A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

COPD: 3 things you should know

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. More than 15 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, but millions more may not even know they have it. Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, chest tightness, chronic cough and sputum production. If you have any of these symptoms, and they just won’t go away, it’s time to meet with your primary care provider.

What is COPD?

Woman coughing - COPD: The cough that won't go away

If you have a chronic cough that won’t go away, it’s time to talk to your provider.

Your symptoms may seem to be a run-of-the-mill respiratory illness like a cold. Karen Masanz, respiratory therapist with Marshfield Clinic Health System, says symptoms of COPD are chronic or have been going on for a long period of time.

COPD is diagnosed by meeting with your medical provider who takes detailed medical history and orders a special breathing test called a pulmonary function test.

COPD typically develops because of years of smoking or exposure to factors like dust, chemicals and pollutions. In some rare cases, Masanz says COPD is caused by a genetic disorder. Long-term exposures to irritants also can cause inflammation, narrowing of the airway and cough.

How to treat COPD

No matter its cause, lifestyle changes, education and treatment can improve how you feel. There is no cure for COPD. Treatment is focused on managing and treating symptoms.

Helpful tools to manage and treat COPD include:

“There are medications out there that can help,” Masanz said. “It’s really about getting on the right medication that works for you and using it correctly.” Oxygen also may be needed to treat symptoms of COPD.

Make an appointment with a pulmonary medicine provider to find out the treatment that is best for you. Masanz recommends meeting with a pulmonary provider at least yearly to be up-to-date on medications and treatments. Discuss with your doctor if pulmonary rehab is right for you.

Pulmonary rehab is a program designed to educate patients on their disease and increase exercise tolerance while being monitored by a team of respiratory therapists, exercise physiologists and medical professionals. Educational sessions also are built into the program.

The better conditioned you are, the less short of breath you will be,” Masanz said. “With lung disease, you get short of breath easily. The more short of breath you are, the more difficult it is to function properly. In pulmonary rehab, the goal is to teach individuals how to live well with COPD.”

Outpatients who participate in this class meet twice a week for 50 minutes of supervised exercise.

Living with COPD

If you have COPD, you will never get rid of the disease.

“What damage is done is permanent,” said Masanz.

Monitoring symptoms and using appropriate interventions reduces the severity of the flare ups associated with COPD. Here are helpful tips to monitor COPD:

Be in the healthy zone when managing COPD

The goal is to be in the green zone and feeling well through therapy and medication treatment. During this stage, you want to experience:

  • No shortness of breath
  • Ability to do daily activities or exercise
  • Ability to think clearly
  • Ability to sleep well
  • Good appetite
  • Easy ability to cough up any mucus

In the yellow zone, or when you are having a bad day, it’s important to increase rescue and short acting nebulizer or inhaler (bronchodilator) to four times a day. Call your provider if your symptoms haven’t improved in 24 hours. Yellow zone symptoms include:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Difficulty with daily activities or exercise
  • Increased or thicker mucus with color change
  • An increase in coughing
  • A decrease in appetite
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Possible fever or chills
  • Feet or ankle swelling

Take your rescue medicine and call your health care provider immediately if you are in the red zone and feel like you are in danger. Call 911 and seek medical care immediately if these symptoms arise:

  • Severe shortness of breath even at rest
  • Inability to do daily activities
  • Fever and chills
  • Confusion drowsiness
  • Inability to cough up mucus

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