November is National Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Awareness Month, which makes this a great time to talk about a condition that as recently as 2014 was the third leading cause of death among Americans.
COPD is a respiratory disease that causes blockages of airways and restricts breathing. COPD is an umbrella term that includes more specific conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. 11 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with COPD; many more don’t yet know they have it.
Despite the disease’s prevalence, there is disturbingly little common understanding of it. There are many myths and misconceptions about COPD held by patients, the general public, and even providers. Today, we’re going to debunk some of those myths.
The Myth: My life is over.
The Reality: Given the seriousness of COPD and the number of lives it claims each year in the United States, a COPD diagnosis can feel like a death sentence. It’s not. Diagnosing COPD is the first step to breathing easier, as your provider can then work with you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. Studies show that adherence to prescribed treatment can significantly reduce hospital visits and risk of death.
The Myth: All I have to do is quit smoking.
The Reality: Yes, smokers who are diagnosed with COPD should quit immediately, although that advice is good for any smoker to follow. In addition to smoking cessation, managing your health after a COPD diagnosis should include improving many aspects of your life. Weight management is a major factor, as extra weight can create more pressure around the lungs. And although COPD symptoms will make any kind of exertion difficult, patients should still try to find ways to exercise, because better overall health can mitigate the effects of COPD. Good eating habits improve overall bodily functions, including breathing, and the proper use of prescribed medications can help move air more smoothly through your system. Beating COPD is not about just breathing better, it’s about living better.
The Myth: COPD only affects the body.
The Reality: COPD is a physiological condition that has many psychological effects. Research has shown that COPD patients often report feelings of social isolation, fear associated with breathlessness, and inability to participate in regular daily activities and social interaction. No aspect of health operates in isolation. If you’re living with COPD, practice healthy self-care and talk to your care provider about the mental health and community resources that are available to you.
The Myth: Only smokers get COPD.
The Reality: While it is true that 50% of smokers will get COPD and smoking causes 80% of COPD-related deaths, the disease can strike non-smokers as well. Exposure to chemicals or both indoor and outdoor pollution on a regular basis can contribute to development of COPD – industrial workplaces like mines and factories can be particularly dangerous in this regard. COPD can also develop as a result of a genetically inherited Alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) protein deficiency, which causes a variety of serious breathing problems. Those with bloodline relatives who have AAT deficiency are at risk, and regular screening and doctor’s visits are critical to diagnosis and management.
The Myth: Only men get COPD.
The Reality: Women can develop COPD, and those who do have a higher mortality rate than men. Research has shown that in some cases, COPD in women is misdiagnosed as asthma, which leads to improper treatment. Read more about the rise of COPD in women from the American Lung Association.
The Myth: Shortness of breath is the only symptom.
The Reality: Because COPD develops slowly, and symptoms often aren’t observed until after a patient reaches 40 years old, early warning signs can be confused with signs of aging. Shortness of breath during normal, daily activity is the most common symptom, but excessive coughing, wheezing, and phlegm production are also symptoms of COPD. Additionally, recurring respiratory infections can be a signal to patients, their families, and providers that COPD is a possible threat.
The Myth: COPD patients understand their condition.
The Reality: Doctors diagnosing COPD should do everything in their power to make sure patients understand their condition. Many do during an initial post-diagnosis consultation and other patient visits to their offices. Research suggests, however, that introductory education and understanding don’t always stick. A recent study of COPD patients found that only half knew the name of their condition. And despite the fact that 75% of those surveyed were ex-smokers, only a third of them named smoking as the main cause of their condition. Continuous patient education is necessary to help COPD patients understand their condition, which helps them feel empowered to manage it.
The Myth: Adherence to treatment is a no-brainer.
The Reality: COPD treatment plans involve a patient adjusting many aspects of their life, which for many different reasons is not easy. Patients may not have enough support at home, enough understanding, the financial ability, or sufficient transportation to follow doctor’s orders. It’s up to providers to help patients determine the barriers to adherence and connect them with the resources they need to manage their disease.
The Myth: I am the only provider who has a role in my patient’s COPD care.
The Reality: As with many health conditions, COPD affects many aspects of a patient’s life and thereby involves many care providers. In most cases, a primary care provider and pulmonologist will work together to develop a treatment plan, and all other providers – nurses, home care, social workers, etc. – need to understand the plan, adhere to it, and reinforce it. Any instances of disagreement should be handled between the providers, rather than put to the patient to decide.
Contact Reliable to see how we partner with providers and patients to help manage COPD symptoms.