Asking Questions, Getting Answers, and Moving Forward
If you smoke cigarettes and are thinking about quitting or are already trying to quit, you probably can't help but wonder just what is going on in your lungs. After all, the lungs can be pretty mysterious. What do they look like? We know they're filled with air, so does that mean they're like balloons? Are they muscles? Are they pink? Are they black? "Good grief," you might be thinking, "If I'm a smoker - what condition are my lungs in?" And here's probably the most commonly asked question I hear: What makes me short of breath?
You may also be thinking, "Are my lungs really damaged from my years of smoking, or have I dodged a bullet and if I quit soon will my lungs - and my breathing - be alright? Will I be alright? Or is it already too late to quit, so might I just as well keep on puffing, enjoy it and let the chips fall where they may? Do I already have this "COPD" disease that I'm hearing about these days? And, if I do, YIKES! Does that mean I'm going to wind up a crabby, wrinkled old fogey with a hose in my nose and gasping for breath?" These are questions every smoker asks. Every single one. And asking them is okay, in fact it's good, because that means you're taking your first step to getting answers.
It takes a lot of courage to face the fact that you might have a chronic, incurable - but very treatable - disease. And to think that this disease might have been caused by a specific behavior on your part, well, that makes your courage even more remarkable. I'm here to tell you - this is not the time for shame, blame, or guilt. We can slay that dragon another day! For now, let's just see what we're up against.
Here are some quick and easy questions and answers. They're by no means complete, but they're a start. And this is what we're all about today - making a start.
Are my lungs damaged? If you are or have been a smoker, the answer is yes, they probably are, but the good news is that we are all born with far more lung capacity than we'll need in our lifetime. So if we sustain lung damage, we usually have some time to clean up our act and at least slow down the progression of the disease before it gets way out of hand.
Is it too late to quit? No, it's never too late to quit! And if you're trying to quit and then slip back and start smoking again, just take a deep breath (no pun intended) and make a new plan to get back up on that horse and try again. Stopping smoking at any time slows lung disease progression way down. We'll talk more about that another time.
Do I already have COPD? Well, maybe you do. But that doesn't mean it's the end of your world. It so does not mean that! You don't have to end up crabby and gasping. I'm here to tell you that you can live a long time and live in health after you quit smoking, even with COPD. Yes, you really can. You can find out if you have COPD by taking an easy lung function test, also called spirometry. It will give your doctor and you the numbers.
So, what is this COPD, how do I know if I have it, and what in the world can I do about it?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term referring to the combination of two lung diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. There is some debate about whether asthma should be included as a component of COPD. Personally, I think it should, because even though emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma are different from each other, they all play a role in the development of COPD. Obstruction in airflow means that you have trouble getting your air out. Having airway obstruction over time stretches out your lungs, causing them to lose the elasticity they need to move the air and help you breathe. Think about a new balloon and an old balloon and the elastic recoil of each. We want our lungs to be more like that new balloon, able to get rid of the used up air without us having to work at it. The amount of obstruction and damage in COPD can be quite significant before you begin to feel short of breath. That is why early testing and diagnosis is so important! Once you know what you're dealing with, there is a lot you can do and we'll tackle that next time.
Now, the big question, the one you might not even be ready to face, but remember, no matter how bad it is, knowing is always better than living in denial. Yes, I've heard it said that denial is nature's way of giving you a good night's sleep. Sure, that works for a while, but not forever. Here we go...
Could You be at Risk for Having COPD?
- Are you 40 years old or older, currently smoke cigarettes or have smoked in the past?
- Are you 40 years old or older and have a history of breathing irritants in your home environment or work place?
- Do you sometimes have coughing fits or trouble breathing when exerting?
- Do you have frequent bouts of bronchitis?
- Do you cough up mucus or phlegm in the morning?
- Does asthma, bronchitis or emphysema run in your family?
- Do you sometimes have trouble keeping up with people your own age?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you may be at risk for developing COPD. You should talk to your doctor and ask him or her to consider ordering spirometry (a quick and simple lung function test). http://www.nlhep.org/spirom1.html
So, there you are. Today you asked some tough questions and you got perhaps, some tough answers. But remember, knowing is always a whole lot better, and a whole lot healthier, than not knowing. COPD is not curable, but it can be managed and treated for years and years of health! Now its time to do what you need to do, and move forward.
Next time we'll talk about what you can do and where you can find help if you've just been diagnosed with COPD.
Happy Holidays, everybody, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks!