Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are lung conditions that can cause wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and heavy mucus. Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts during childhood. COPD develops when you are an adult 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 easy to irritate. They react strongly to certain things in the air. When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten, causing less air to flow into the lungs. Swelling can make the airways even smaller. Cells in the airways may make more mucus than normal. Mucus can further narrow your airways. This can result in asthma symptoms, like wheezing and feeling like you can’t breathe.¹
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 getting sick. Cigarette smoking is the main cause of COPD. Long-term breathing of irritants like air pollution, chemical fumes or dust may also add to COPD. ²
People with asthma or COPD are at greater risk for problems from flu and pneumonia, which are two dangerous infections.³ So get regular vaccines to protect yourself. You’ll need a flu vaccine every year. You should get the pneumonia vaccine at least once in your life. You might need a booster shot, too.
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). This test can help diagnose COPD and determine how serious it is. The test can also help tell the difference between asthma and 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 signs. Your peak flow measurements can help your doctor make decisions about your care and adjust your medications. 4
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 heart rate drops and your body begins healing.5 Not smoking will improve your health and quality of life for years to come. If you don't smoke, don't start.
Have an asthma or COPD action plan. This is a set of 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 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, prevention and an action plan, you can feel begin to better and, hopefully, live a little longer.
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