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If you don’t have a lung disease, it may be hard to imagine the struggle to breathe. However, this is not always the case for the 16.4 million Americans living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). 

When a person is diagnosed with COPD, the airways in the lungs become inflamed and the tissue in the lungs is destroyed, preventing the exchange of oxygen. Once this happens, it becomes more difficult for oxygen to get into the body tissues and more challenging for carbon dioxide to leave the body. As a result, breathing can become problematic. As the disease progresses, supplemental oxygen may also be required. 

Common symptoms of COPD are shortness of breath, chronic coughing, fatigue, frequent respiratory infections, blueness of the lips or fingernails (due to lack of oxygen), coughing up a lot of mucus and wheezing. 

Although COPD does not have a cure, it is often preventable and manageable. The number one contributing factor is smoking, and it is never too late to quit. About 85% to 90% of diagnosed cases of COPD are caused by smoking. Additionally, long-term exposure to second-hand smoke, air pollution, dust, fumes, and chemicals are also influencing causes. 

If you have trouble breathing, are a smoker or former smoker, experience a chronic cough with or without mucus, or have a family history of COPD, speak to your healthcare provider. 

If diagnosed with COPD, it is important to be aware of additional health risks including respiratory infections such as pneumonia, heart problems, lung cancer, pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the arteries) and depression. It is also common for those with COPD to have anxiety. When one has trouble breathing, it can understandably create anxiety which can trigger shortness of breath. 
Often referred to as an exacerbation or flare-up, this is when someone with COPD needs immediate medical attention because of severe shortness of breath. The reasons for the exacerbation can vary, but one of the most common is a respiratory infection. If hospitalized, there may be a recommendation for short-term rehabilitation. If short-term rehabilitation is advised, National Health Care Associates can help. Visit to find a short-term care center near you.

Overall attention to nutrition is important when managing any chronic disease. Food is fuel for our bodies, including breathing. 

According to the COPD Foundation, “If you have COPD, being underweight can be a serious problem. A person with COPD needs an extra 430-720 calories a day, just to do the work of breathing!” Being overweight carries its own risks as well. 

Maintaining an active lifestyle is important if diagnosed with COPD. Your healthcare provider may also recommend outpatient pulmonary rehabilitation coupled with attending a support group for COPD. This may serve as a way to find support with peers that have chronic pulmonary conditions and to also exercise your lungs!

The American Lung Association runs Better Breathers Club Support Groups for those with chronic lung conditions. For more information visit Better Breathers Club | American Lung Association.

(Sources:  American Lung Association, The Mayo Clinic, The COPD Foundation)

Column is written by Laura Falt, director of business development in Connecticut. Laura welcomes the opportunity to be a resource to the community on services for older adults and is often featured in local publications.