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Echo Press Editorial: COPD, a killer with a low profile

“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

It’s a health problem that doesn’t roll off the tongue easily but more people should know what it is, what’s being done to combat it and how they can help.

November is COPD Awareness Month. Governor Mark Dayton’s signed a proclamation urging all Minnesotans to learn more about the disease and early diagnosis.

Unlike cancer or diabetes, many people haven’t even heard of COPD. Here is some enlightening information from the COPD Foundation:

COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis.

COPD is the nation’s third leading cause of death and in Minnesota, 4.1 percent of residents have COPD.

COPD kills more women than breast cancer and diabetes combined.

Additionally, COPD is the nation’s second leading cause of disability and is the only disease in the top five causes of death that has a growing mortality rate. This is due largely to the lack of awareness and the low rate of early diagnosis as the majority of people with COPD are not diagnosed until they have lost half of their lung function.

It affects more than 24 million Americans but only 12 million are diagnosed.

Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants; that includes smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.), and second-hand smoke. Fumes, chemicals and dust found in many work environments are contributing factors for many individuals who develop COPD.

Genetics can also play a role in an individual’s development of COPD even if the person has never smoked or has ever been exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace.

COPD is characterized by increasing breathlessness and is often mistaken as a normal part of aging. It is also common that in the early stages of the disease one may not notice the symptoms as COPD can develop for years without noticeable shortness of breath.

That’s why it is important for at-risk individuals to talk to their doctor about spirometry, a simple breathing test.

There is good news about COPD: It is often preventable and it is treatable. But the first step in addressing this “low-profile” disease is to know more about it and to seek a diagnosis early. If you are diagnosed with COPD, there are strategies for dealing with it. The American Cancer Society offers this advice:

• If you’re a smoker, quit now. Stopping smoking has more positive impact on the disease than any other type of treatment.

• Take any medicine you’re prescribed exactly as instructed. If you are having problems, talk with your healthcare provider about possible solutions.

• Get active! Keep as physically fit as possible and discuss pulmonary rehabilitation with your physician. Pulmonary rehabilitation can help you rebuild strength and reduce shortness of breath.

• Educate yourself. The Lung Association has a wealth of information and resources to help you better understand your lungs and COPD.

• Finally, get support. Controlling COPD is easier as a team effort. Ask for and get support from those who love you.