Protect your Lungs and Manage the Effects of Asthma and COPD

June 20, 2011

Physician consulting with a patient about an asthma inhaler

Asthma is a long-term lung disease that is caused by narrowing of the airways through excessive mucous production and inflammation. Asthma causes recurring episodes of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning. Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts during childhood. In the United States, more than 22 million people are known to have asthma. Nearly 6 million of these people are children.

The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. People who have asthma have inflamed airways. This makes the airways swollen and very sensitive. They tend to react strongly to certain inhaled substances.

When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. This narrows the airways, causing less air to flow into the lungs. The swelling also can worsen, making the airways even narrower. Cells in the airways may make more mucus than normal. Mucus is a sticky, thick liquid that can further narrow your airways. This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms. Symptoms can happen each time the airways are inflamed.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD):

COPD is a lung condition that develops in adulthood and gets worse over time. COPD can cause coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and other symptoms.

COPD is made up of two main conditions – emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema occurs when the walls between the air sacs are damaged, causing them to lose their shape and become floppy. This damage reduces the amount of gas exchange. Chronic bronchitis occurs when the lining of the airways is constantly irritated and inflamed causing the lining to thicken. A lot of thick mucus forms in the airways, which makes it hard to breathe and puts you at risk for infections.

In COPD, less air flows in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following:

  • The airways and air sacs lose their elastic quality.
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed.
  • The airways make more mucus than usual, which tends to clog them.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust, also may contribute to COPD.

There are many things you can do to protect your lungs and lower your risk of complications associated with asthma or COPD.

Tests:

A simple, painless test called spirometry measures how much air you breathe in and out and how fast you can blow air out. According to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, spirometry is one of the most important tests that can help diagnose COPD, distinguish asthma from COPD and determine disease severity. After a diagnosis of COPD, you will need to continue spirometry to monitor disease and response to therapy.

A peak flow meter is a simple device you use every day at home which measures the maximum amount of air your breathe out. Essentially, it tells you how open your airways are. The peak flow rate shows if your asthma is getting worse, even before you feel symptoms. Additionally, your peak flow measurements can help your doctor make decisions about your treatment plan and adjust your medications as necessary.

Protect Your Lungs:

  • If you smoke, quit immediately - It is never too late to quit smoking. Within the first 20 minutes of quitting, your body begins the healing process and the benefits of not smoking continue to improve your health and quality of life for years to come. If you don't smoke, don't start.
  • Get routine influenza (flu) and pneumonia vaccines. According to the American Lung Association people with asthma or COPD are at greater risk for serious complications from flu and pneumonia. In order to protect yourself against these complications, get a flu vaccine every year and stay current with the pneumonia vaccine. You should receive the pneumonia vaccine at least once, and sometimes a booster shot is recommended.

Action Plan:

It is important to have an asthma or COPD action plan. An action plan is a set of individualized written instructions from your doctor, which details what you should do to manage your asthma or COPD at home based on your symptoms and/or peak flow meter readings. Using an action plan is a way you can be proactive and prevent flare-ups. Ask your doctor about an action plan today.

Asthma and COPD can make it difficult to breath, but with routine testing, preventative measures, and following your doctor's treatment plan, you can enjoy the benefits of improved health and longevity. Humana, helping you live well, now.

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