It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed after receiving a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — living with a chronic lung disease brings changes to many aspects of life. Many people don’t realize that the condition is highly treatable, and that there are things you can do to slow the progression of COPD. To help you better understand and manage your COPD, let’s take a look at five common misconceptions surrounding this lung disease.
1. COPD is a single condition.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease refers to a group of progressive lung diseases. The two primary diseases under this umbrella are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Most people with COPD have both conditions, but it’s possible to have just one.
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema affect the lungs in different ways. Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation in the airways leading to your lungs, which leads to a chronic cough and increased mucus. Emphysema destroys your lungs’ fragile air sacs, or alveoli, obstructing airflow. When alveoli become damaged, the lungs cannot fully expel air carrying carbon dioxide out of the body, so some of it remains trapped in your lungs. Oxygen-rich air is then blocked from entering the lungs, which causes gradually worsening shortness of breath.
2. COPD isn’t treatable.
COPD may not be curable, but it is highly manageable. There are many treatment options that can ease symptoms and improve your quality of life, while also preventing the condition from progressing into a more advanced stage. In addition to lifestyle changes, COPD treatment may consist of medications, supplemental oxygen therapy (typically used for COPD caused by emphysema), and surgery in more advanced cases.
Medications commonly used to treat COPD include bronchodilators, which relax the muscles around the airways to make breathing easier, and inhaled corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation in the airways and prevent COPD exacerbations, or flare-ups.
Other medications may be used to treat exacerbations or more severe cases of COPD, including oral steroids and phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors.
3. After a COPD diagnosis, it’s too late to quit smoking.
There is never a bad time to stop smoking and quitting is the most important thing you can do to manage COPD. Since COPD is a progressive lung disease, symptoms gradually become more severe over time. While it’s true that you cannot reverse the damage to your lungs caused by smoking, you can prevent COPD from progressing into a more advanced stage by maintaining healthy lifestyle habits. In fact, many people with early-stage COPD are able to regain near-normal lung function after quitting tobacco use. Even if your COPD has already progressed to a more advanced stage, quitting smoking will help reduce symptoms and prevent flare-ups and other health complications.
If you are having trouble quitting, ask your doctor for smoking cessation resources. They may be able to prescribe nicotine replacement therapy to help with withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Watch our webinar for more on the role of smoking cessation in COPD treatment.
4. COPD only affects the lungs.
The lung damage caused by COPD can affect other areas of the body. The condition can increase your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. It may also lead to pulmonary hypertension, a condition characterized by high blood pressure in the arteries that transport blood to your lungs. The risk of these potential health complications is one reason it’s so important to get an early diagnosis, and to follow the treatment plan your doctor recommends in order to slow progression.
People with COPD are also more likely to contract the flu or pneumonia — and to have more intense symptoms of these illnesses — so as part of your COPD treatment plan, stay current with your yearly flu and pneumonia vaccines.
5. COPD prevents exercise.
Quite the opposite — regular physical activity is key to maintaining a good quality of life and living healthily with COPD. While it may seem counterintuitive to exercise when you’re short of breath, physical activity can make it easier to breathe in the long run by strengthening your respiratory muscles.
It’s important to take it slow and practice gentle exercises that don’t overexert your lungs. Your doctor can help you determine appropriate activities based on your experience of COPD.
You may also benefit from a pulmonary rehabilitation program, which helps many people with COPD manage their condition and improve their quality of life. Pulmonary rehabilitation is an outpatient exercise and education program where physical therapists, dietitians, and other healthcare professionals share breathing techniques, nutritional advice, exercise recommendations, and other strategies for living with COPD.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.