Fabgrandpa was diagnosed with COPD about six years ago. We were working at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet. Every Spring when we went back to work, it took longer and longer for him to acclimated to the elevation. He had a hard time breathing, felt short of breath most of the time, and coughed a lot. He wound up in the emergency room in Flagstaff for a breathing treatment, and got prescriptions for an antibiotic and a steroid to help open up his airways. Bronchitis was a regular thing for him.
At the time of his diagnosis with COPD, he was still smoking cigarettes, about a pack a day. His doctor and the other medical professionals he saw all told him he needed to quit, because smoking exacerbated his condition. While they all told him he had COPD, none of the doctors actually told him what COPD was. He seemed to always be asking “What is COPD?”
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory, or not-reversible, asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. That is a lot of big words used to describe disorders that make breathing difficult. Most people start to develop COPD when they are around 40 years old, but they don’t notice the symptoms at first. You begin to see the symptoms when the more developed stages of the disease. Symptoms include increased shortness of breath, frequent coughing with and without sputum, wheezing, and tightness in the chest. Fabgrandpa had all of these symptoms. COPD affects about 24 million people in the United States.
There are many risk factors and causes of COPD. It can be caused by inhaling pollutants, including cigarette smoke, and second hand smoke. Fumes, chemicals, and dust found in work environments contribute to the development of 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. Fabgrandpa tested deficient in Alpha–1 antitrypsin, which is a genetic disorder that causes COPD and liver disease.
If you have shortness of breath, or have a hard time keeping up with people your age, you may want to ask your doctor to test you for COPD if are a smoker, if you have a history of COPD in our family, or if you have been exposed to harmful chemical fumes for a long period of time. It is important to get tested because leaving symptoms misdiagnosed, untreated, or undertreated may cause them to worsen faster than if they were treated with proper medication and therapy. Many adults are incorrectly diagnosed with asthma. Providing a proper diagnosis means individuals will receive the right treatments and follow up monitoring. There’s no cure yet for COPD but treatments are available to help individuals live better.