Through awareness, COPD can be prevented

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By Dr. Neil R. Horning


Many of us take for granted the simple reflex of breathing. Sadly, what is simple to me is not so simple to the 1 in every 12 Iowans who struggle with shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and the challenges associated with everyday activities such as walking. Most of us take for granted the simple things in life.

November is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease awareness month, dedicated to those who have lost their life to COPD or continue to struggle with the disease.

COPD is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. In people with COPD, the airways become narrow and damaged, making people feel out of breath and tired. COPD can be a serious illness. It cannot be cured and it usually gets worse over time, but there are treatments that can help. You may have heard COPD referred to as “chronic bronchitis” or “emphysema.”

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD, and the more a person smokes, the more likely it is that person will develop COPD. Prolonged exposure to chemicals, fumes in the air, and secondhand smoke are also known causes of COPD. Smoking cessation efforts and tobacco reduction plans are the most important and cost effective way to reduce the prevalence of COPD, the third leading cause of death in the United States.

However, some people never smoke and still develop the disease.

The personal costs of this disease are overwhelming and can include the inability to go shopping without oxygen equipment, struggling to climb stairs, being unable to play with your grandchildren or widowing your spouse.

But, the financial costs of COPD are another important reason to take action. Most Americans are diagnosed with COPD between the ages of 40 and 65 years old. The challenges of living with COPD occur during an individual’s peak earning years. Forty percent of those who are diagnosed are forced to retire early.

Through awareness, COPD can be prevented, health care costs can be reduced, and lives can be saved.

The costs to the health care system are staggering. The cost of an average hospital stay for a person with COPD is nearly $13,000. With hospitalizations making up 70 percent of COPD-related expenses, it’s easy to see how the price tag will continue to rise.

Early detection is key to successful treatment and to help patients lead a more productive life.

There are some things a person with COPD can do to mitigate some of the devastating effects of the disease. If you believe you are at risk for COPD or are exhibiting symptoms such as shortness of breath or a chronic cough, ask your physician about a lung function test, which can help determine if steps need to be taken to prevent or treat COPD. Unfortunately, only 38 percent of Iowans receive this assessment, and 81 percent of patients in one study had already developed moderate to severe COPD when they were finally diagnosed with the disease. I urge every Iowan to take the personal steps needed to reduce the risk factors for COPD in their daily lives. Prevention, smoking cessation, early detection and treatment are essential interventions in reducing this condition’s costs and too often deadly outcomes.

Dr. Neil R. Horning, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Des Moines, wrote this on behalf of the American Lung Association. Comments: Contact Horning at Chest, Infectious Diseases and Critical Care Associates, Des Moines, (515) 224-1777

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