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MAIN Arrow to HealthHealth Arrow to Diseases - Symptoms & TreatmentsDisease

Coping with COPD
Don't Just Quit Smoking, Take the Next Step

copd diseasesCOPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, claiming the lives of 120,000 people a year in the U.S.

It is estimated that currently 10.7 million people have been diagnosed with COPD. However, up to 24 million Americans have evidence of impaired lung function, indicating under-diagnosis of this disease.

COPD is a both a preventable and a treatable disease.

"Many people choose to ignore their symptoms and thus are not reflected in the statistics," says Dr. Norman Edelman, the American Lung Association's chief medical officer.

Sharon O'Hara, 66, of Silverdale, WA, was just 17 when she picked up her first cigarette. "Like a lot of people who started smoking back then, I did it because it was the cool, chic thing to do," she says.

Humphrey Bogart and Lana Turner did it. So did a lot of people's parents, teachers, neighbors and even doctors. According to statistics gathered by the National Institutes of Health, in 1955, by the time O'Hara picked up the habit, 56 percent of American men and 28 percent of American women were smoking.

"Obviously the numbers were so high because no one knew one day there would be serious health ramifications," says O'Hara, who today is on a mission to get the word out about the dangers of smoking. "My bad habit nearly killed me."

In 1997, shortly after returning home from a trip to Norway, she became so short of breath she was unable to stand and had to crawl across the floor to get the food to feed her dogs. Her son rushed her to the hospital. "I decided during that four-day period in the hospital, I would never pick up a cigarette again. And I haven't," she says.

"I learned that COPD is not a death sentence. It's an opportunity, a challenge to regain quality of life. The more fit we become, the better we can breathe."

O'Hara had been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) -- a term referring to a broad group of lung diseases that leave people hungry for air -- a couple of years prior to that episode. Her doctor had advised her to quit smoking, "But I was addicted and just wouldn't listen," she says. It wasn't until the day she collapsed gasping for air that the light bulb finally turned on.

O'Hara now exercises every day, and she's currently training for a cross country bike ride sponsored by the American Lung Association to raise awareness about the disease. She also speaks at seminars aimed at COPD survivors and their families.

"People should not have to go through what I've gone through. If I knew then what I know now about the dangers of smoking, I never would have started," says O'Hara. "Probably the only reason I coped so well as a smoker and ignored my failing ability to breathe was because I was physically fit.".

Despite suffering occasional bouts with shortness of breath, O'Hara climbed mountains, rode horses and spent all of her spare time working hard to restore a neglected estate she and her husband had bought for their retirement.

But as her condition deteriorated, she reached the point where she couldn't even lift a shovel and knew things needed to change. "We sold the estate and moved closer to town," she says.

Shortly after moving, while surfing on the Internet, O'Hara came across two Web sites she says turned her life around. "Finding COPD support groups and the American Lung Association of Washington online changed my life," she says. "I learned that COPD is not a death sentence. It's an opportunity, a challenge to regain quality of life. The more fit we become, the better we can breathe."

Are You a Candidate for COPD?

"The first step is to be diagnosed," points out Dr. Edelman. He recommends that anyone who has ever smoked get a spirometry (lung function) test. COPD can also be hereditary, or occur due to occupational hazards and pollution. If you answer yes to any of these questions, Dr. Edelman recommends you, too, see a doctor.

  • Do you frequently experience a deep, chronic cough?

  • When completing routine activities, such as climbing a flight of stairs, are you short of breath?

  • Do you live in a heavy smog/high-ozone area?

  • Are you exposed to air pollution at work?

  • In cold weather, does your chest get tight or do you find it difficult to breathe?



More about COPD around the Web:

MedlinePlus: COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) - US National Library of Medicine,
National Institutes of Health provides an excellent resource with current news, overviews, diagnosis/symptoms, treatment options, coping and disease management help. Links to many other top resources.

How Serious is COPD? - The American Lung Association does a excellent job of providing the facts on all aspects of this disease.

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) Symptoms, Causes - MedicineNet guide with a comprehensive look at the condition with facts and information on symptoms, causes, and treatment with related illustrations, photos, and references.


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