Live better with COPD and asthma

December 2012

Doctor informing her patient about asthma inhaler

Asthma and COPD are lung conditions that can cause wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and excess mucus. Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts during childhood. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, develops in adulthood and worsens over time.

If you have asthma, your airways (the tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs) can become inflamed, swollen, and sensitive. They tend to react strongly to certain inhaled substances. When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten, causing less air to flow into the lungs. Swelling can make the airways even narrower. Cells in the airways may make more mucus than normal. Mucus can further narrow your airways. This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath.

COPD is made up of two main conditions: emphysema and chronic bronchitis . In emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs are damaged. This keeps the lungs from doing their job of bringing oxygen to the body and getting rid of waste gases. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term cough with a great deal of mucus. In both cases, you have trouble breathing and are at risk for infections. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Long-term exposure to irritants like air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust may also contribute to COPD.

A simple, painless test called spirometry measures your lung function (how much air you breathe in and out and how fast you can blow air out). Spirometry can help diagnose COPD and determine how severe it is. The test can also help distinguish asthma from COPD.

If you have asthma, you can use a peak flow meter at home to measure the amount of air you breathe out. This tells you how open your airways are. The peak flow rate shows if your asthma is getting worse, even before you feel symptoms. Your peak flow measurements can help your doctor make decisions about your treatment and adjust your medications.

Protect your lungs

Just 20 minutes after you quit smoking, your body begins healing

If you smoke, quit now. It doesn't matter how long you've smoked or how old you are. It’s never too late. Within the first 20 minutes of quitting, your body begins healing! Not smoking will improve your health and quality of life for years to come. If you don't smoke, don't start.

People with asthma or COPD are at greater risk for complications from flu and pneumonia. So get routine vaccines to protect yourself. You’ll need a flu vaccine every year. You should receive the pneumonia vaccine at least once. You might need a booster shot too.

Have an asthma or COPD action plan. This is a set of individualized written instructions from your doctor. Your plan will spell out what you should do to manage your asthma or COPD at home. It will help you be proactive and prevent flare-ups.

Medicines can help. Bronchodilators are usually taken by inhaler and make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in your airways. Inhaled steroids help reduce inflammation.

Asthma and COPD can make it difficult to breathe. But with routine testing, preventative measures, and a treatment plan, you can feel better and live longer.

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