Dear Savvy Senior: I have struggled with shortness of breath for several years now. I just thought I was getting old and fat, but a friend recently told me about COPD. So my question is: Could I have COPD and not know it? — Huffing and Puffing
Dear Huffing: Yes. COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive lung disease that affects an estimated 30 million Americans, but about half of them don’t know they have it.
Many people mistake shortness of breath as a normal part of aging or a result of being out of shape, but that’s not necessarily the case. COPD — a term used to describe a variety of lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis — develops slowly, so symptoms may not be obvious until damage has occurred.
Symptoms can include an ongoing cough or a cough that produces a lot of mucus, lack of energy and/or shortness of breath especially during physical activity, wheezing and chest tightness, blue lips or fingernails, and swelling in your feet, ankles or legs.
Those most at risk are smokers or former smokers over age 40, and people who have had long-term exposure to lung irritants such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes and dust. There is also a rare genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin, or AAT deficiency, that can increase the risks.
If you’re experiencing symptoms, you need to get tested by your doctor. A simple breathing test called spirometry will reveal whether you have COPD, and if so, how severe it is. Early screening can also identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.
If you do indeed have COPD, you need to know that while there’s no cure, there are things you can do to help manage symptoms and protect your lungs from further damage, including:
>> Quit smoking: If you smoke, the best thing you can do to prevent more damage is to quit. To get help, the National Cancer Institute offers a number of smoking cessation resources at SmokeFree.gov or 800-QUIT-NOW. Or ask your doctor about prescription anti-smoking drugs that can help reduce your nicotine craving. If you smoke cannabis for a medical condition, talk to your doctor about edible versions.
>> Avoid air pollutants: Stay away from things that could irritate your lungs like dust, allergens and strong fumes. Also, to help improve your 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 (see AirNow.gov for daily air-quality reports).
>> Get vaccinated: The coronavirus and flu can cause serious problems for people who have COPD, so if you haven’t already done so, get vaccinated for COVID-19 and get a flu shot every fall. Also, ask your doctor about getting the pneumococcal immunization for protection against pneumonia.
>> Take prescribed medications: 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 is, you might need a short-acting version for when symptoms occur or a long-acting prescription for daily use. Inhaled steroids could also help reduce inflammation and mucus, and prevent flare-ups.
For more information, visit the COPD Foundation at COPDfoundation.org or call the COPD information line at 866-316-2673.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.