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Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a collection of lung diseases that cause breathing problems and airflow obstruction. Included in this group of diseases are refractory (severe) asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Frequent coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Poor exercise tolerance

Diagnosis

  • COPD is diagnosed most frequently in certain groups:

    • People between the ages of 50 and 74
    • Current and former smokers
    • People with a history of severe asthma
    • People with long-term exposure to air irritants, including industrial chemicals and tobacco smoke
    • People with a family history of COPD

    While COPD has long been thought to be an ailment most frequently diagnosed in older white men, a 2013 report by the American Lung Association found that women are 37 percent more likely than men to have the disease and account for more than half the COPD deaths in the United States.

    Although symptoms may not always be severe, COPD is serious and can be deadly. Early diagnosis and treatment may change the course of the disease and slow its progression.

    An allergist can diagnose and treat COPD and other respiratory conditions, such as asthma, with an evaluation that includes a medical history, a physical exam and appropriate tests. If you report that you are having difficulty breathing, expect your allergist to conduct a breathing test, known as spirometry. This quick and efficient exam tells how well your lungs are working by measuring how much air they can hold and how quickly air moves in and out.

    Your allergist also may suggest a chest CT scan and a chest X-ray. After you receive a diagnosis, your allergist will go over treatment options with you and discuss lifestyle changes that might help you feel better.

Management and Treatment

People with COPD may not know they have it until their disease is in its “moderate” stage, meaning that they are experiencing frequent shortness of breath, coughing and heavier-than-normal mucus. Misdiagnosis can occur because the symptoms of COPD mimic other respiratory conditions, such as asthma. In 2011, chronic lower respiratory diseases — primarily COPD — was the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While an estimated 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, according to 2011 statistics from the CDC, the number of sufferers may be higher. More than 50 percent of adults with low pulmonary function were not aware that they had COPD, the CDC found.

Treating COPD isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Each patient will receive a treatment plan customized for his or her specific needs. Treatment may include medication to help alleviate symptoms, supplemental oxygen and pulmonary rehabilitation. Some lifestyle changes may also be recommended, such as exercise, breathing techniques and avoidance of air pollutants at home and at work. For smokers, the most important part of treatment will be quitting the use of tobacco.

Because respiratory illnesses, such as the flu, can cause serious complications in people with COPD, those people should get a yearly flu vaccination. A pneumococcal vaccine is also recommended.

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