A Deadly, Preventable Disease

Monica Paulo, MD
Pulmonologist and Critical Care Specialist,
St. Alexius Heart & Lung Clinic

A Deadly, Preventalbe DiseasePublic knowledge of the dangers of smoking is much greater than it was just a few decades ago, and yet many Americans still smoke and many young adults still try cigarettes.  Despite the warning labels, addictive nature and lasting health problems, the CDC estimates 45.3 million people, or 19.3 percent of all adults (aged 18 years or older), in the United States smoke cigarettes.

That is why it is particularly important to recognize National COPD Awareness Month in November.  COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the third leading cause of death in American although the disease is largely preventable.  Smoking is the leading cause of COPD and the more a person smokes the more likely he or she is to develop COPD.  Once someone starts smoking, that person often finds it very hard to stop.  Therefore, it is very important to understand the side effects smoking causes and not to start.

Over time inhaled cigarette smoke clogs and breaks down the airways in the lungs.  The lungs become like a dirty, sticky sponge.  The lungs’ airway walls lose elasticity, break down or become thick and inflamed, and clog with mucus.  This gradual deterioration of the lungs is diagnosed as COPD, and there is no way to reverse the damage.  However, there are treatments and ways to slow the progression of the disease, like quitting smoking.

Because the damage is gradual, often symptoms of COPD don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred.  People with COPD may experience coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and other symptoms.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two main conditions that make up COPD, and many people with COPD have both.  Chronic bronchitis causes the inflammation and narrowing of the airways and increases mucus production, which can further block the narrowed airways.  Emphysema weakens and reduces elasticity in the air sac walls in the lungs.  This causes a person’s muscles to work harder to expel air.

Again, the greatest risk of developing COPD is long-term cigarette smoking.  Pipe smokers, cigar smokers and individuals exposed to a large amount of second-hand smoke are also at risk.  So please don’t start or try smoking, and stop if you currently smoke.  For help quitting, speak to your doctor or primary medical provider and consider calling the North Dakota help line: 1-800-QUIT-NOW.  By the time you are diagnosed with COPD and have to seek treatment the damage will already be done.  By quitting smoking you can slow or prevent the progression and development of COPD as well as reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.