By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , , /

My name is Lisa Postow and I am a program officer in the Division of Lung Diseases at
NHLBI, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. COPD, short for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary
Disease, affects millions of Americans. Approximately 16 million people over the age
of 18 are diagnosed and it is estimated that millions more have COPD without even realizing
it. Most – but not all – people with COPD
either smoke or used to smoke. But 25% of COPD cases are due to other factors,
such as genetics or environmental exposure. Annually, about 150 thousand Americans die
from the disease. At NHLBI, we are committed to raising awareness
of COPD so that people who are at risk for COPD or are in the early stages can get help
earlier and get back to doing the things they love. COPD puts a tremendous burden on people with
the disease and their loved ones. It can affect quality of life, causing people
to not be able to do everyday tasks and stop socializing. It also costs the health care system billions
of dollars. But not everyone is aware of COPD, and there
is a lot about COPD that people don’t know. As the name suggests, COPD is a chronic obstruction
of the lungs. Lung obstruction means you have trouble breathing. In healthy lungs, airways and air sacs are
elastic or stretchy. When breathing in, each air sac fills up with
air like a small balloon. When breathing out, the air sacs deflate and
the air goes out. For people with COPD, less air flows in and
out of the airways because of one or more of the following: Either the airways and air
sacs lose their elastic quality; or the walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed;
or the walls of the airways become thick and inflamed; or the airways make more mucus than
usual, which can clog them. The easiest way to understand how a person
with COPD feels is to try breathing through a straw. COPD is sometimes also called Emphysema or
Chronic Bronchitis. Both of these obstruct the lungs, but they
do it differently. In emphysema, the walls between the air sacs
are destroyed, and the air sacs lose their shape. This means the lungs don’t work like they
should. In chronic bronchitis, the airway lining becomes
swollen and inflamed, and a lot of mucus is produced. Most people have a combination of both emphysema
and chronic bronchitis. COPD is a slowly progressing disease and often
people don’t realize they have it until it’s already severe. As the disease gets worse, symptoms usually
become more severe. And when symptoms are mild, they may not be
noticed right away and people may adjust their lifestyle to make breathing easier. For example, taking the elevator instead of
the stairs or resting more often. Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath
or breathlessness, excess mucus production, wheezing, and a constant cough, which is sometimes
called a smoker’s cough. Often people think these are signs of aging
or being out of shape. However, extreme shortness of breath is not
usually a sign of typical aging. If COPD is left untreated, it can lead to
severe limitations to quality of life. But COPD is highly treatable and when managed
properly, symptoms can be greatly relieved and those with COPD can enjoy an improved
quality of life. That’s why it is important to learn about
the signs and symptoms so we can recognize them early and talk to a health care professional
to find ways to manage it. (SFX MUSIC)
You can learn more about COPD on our website at

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