Every Breath You Take
The complexity of the lungs is intriguing. It can also hide some serious problems if we don't pay attention.
Written by Peg Moline
“I think surfing, and having to hold my breath after a wipeout, marked the start of my interest in the lungs,” says Torrance Memorial Physician Network pulmonologist Jamie Kagihara, MD. Dr. Kagihara grew up and studied medicine in Hawaii where her interest in lung function developed, specifically around respiratory mechanics and oxygen diffusion capacity.
When our lungs develop problems, there are often clear signals, but many times they are ignored. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects more than 16 million people in the United States, killing 120,000 annually. “One myth about COPD is it is a rare disease,” Dr. Kagihara explains. “It’s actually the fourth-ranked cause of death in the United States.” The term refers to a group of diseases — including chronic bronchitis and emphysema —causing airflow blockage and breathing problems. The American Lung Association says many people don’t recognize COPD symptoms until the disease has progressed, chalking up the breathing difficulties to “old age” or “being out of shape.”
“Many people have the misconception a ‘smokers cough’ is normal,” says Dr. Kagihara. “This may delay seeing a health care provider for an accurate diagnosis and treatment among patients who may be developing COPD.”
COPD Symptoms include:
- Chronic cough
- Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities
- Producing a lot of mucus
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds
“In most cases,” adds Dr. Kagihara, “The symptoms initially occur intermittently, but they soon become more bothersome or present while simply at rest. To some, these symptoms may seem new or acute, but in reality, they were inconsequential until it affected their lifestyle.”
It probably is no surprise cigarette smokers are the group most at risk for COPD, “but 10% to 15% of people who have COPD have never smoked,” she says. “Another misconception is that quitting smoking will not affect disease progression. In fact, when a patient stops smoking, they reduce their risk for a heart attack and increase their life expectancy.” Additional risk factors include exposure to biomass fuel and second-hand smoke.
If concerned about these symptoms, your doctor will evaluate them, conduct a complete health exam, evaluate those results and ask about your health history. “Once the diagnosis is considered, a pulmonologist can help to diagnose this condition based on Spirometry, which measures the degree of airflow limitation,” explains Dr. Kagihara. “They will choose the appropriate therapy based on degree of airflow limitation, symptom severity, history of exacerbations and monitor improvement.”
COPD is treated primarily with inhaled bronchodilators and glucocorticoids. “Other non-pharmacologic therapies include smoking cessation, pulmonary rehab and adequate nutrition,” she adds. “COPD can be prevented by abstinence from smoking and avoiding the habit altogether.” Smoking cessation is the best thing a patient can do.
Dr. Kagihara concludes: “I wish people would recognize the prevalence of this condition and how treatable it may be. COPD can occur at any age, and many patients go on to live more than 10 years with disease – even if they require oxygen therapy. With the latest, portable oxygen concentrators, a patient can live freely and continue activities outside the home.”