USA TODAY - It kills more Americans than stroke, Alzheimer's and diabetes. And if that's not enough to make you pay attention to COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, consider this: an estimated 24 million people have it, but about half don't know it.
Many people mistake increased shortness of breath as a normal part of aging; it's not. Plus, COPD — a term for progressive lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis — develops slowly, so symptoms may not be obvious until lung damage has occurred.
A breathing test called spirometry can detect the condition. Ask your doctor for one if you notice coughing (with or without phlegm), getting winded doing everyday activities, or wheezing. Smoking, long-term exposure to air pollutants (fumes, secondhand smoke), or a family history may also increase your risk.
There's no cure, but you can take steps to help manage symptoms and live well. First: quit smoking. That's the single most effective way to prevent further lung damage. Three more strategies to breathe easier:
Purify indoor air. Regularly inhaling dust, allergens and strong fumes can irritate your lungs. To help improve air quality at home, remove dust-collecting clutter and keep carpets clean; run the exhaust fan when using smelly cleaning products, bug sprays or paint; ban smoking indoors; and keep windows closed when outdoor air pollution is high (for real-time air-quality reports, go to airnow.gov).
Get a flu shot. Any respiratory infection can further damage lung tissue, and people with COPD are particularly susceptible to flu and pneumonia. Ask your doctor if you should get a pneumococcal immunization as well. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water; it's one of the best ways to protect yourself from getting sick.
Take prescribed meds. Bronchodilators (taken with an inhaler) are commonly used for COPD. They help relax the airway muscles to make breathing easier. Depending on how severe your condition, you may need a short-acting version only for when symptoms occur, or a long-acting prescription for daily use. Inhaled steroids may also help reduce inflammation and mucus and prevent flare-ups.
Scientists continue to research more medications; a new, long-term maintenance therapy called Breo Ellipta (designed to decrease inflammation) was approved by the FDA earlier this year; and another long-term bronchodilator was just recommended for approval by an FDA advisory committee.
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