Sometimes people who smoke (or used to smoke) find themselves coughing a lot and having trouble breathing.
These can be symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), commonly known as “smoker’s cough,” which also includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
People with COPD may also experience wheezing, shortness of breath, mucus that comes up when they cough or a tightness in their chest. And, they may find that they get colds or the flu more often than others. While smoking is a major cause of COPD, nonsmokers can also develop it. Exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke, chemical fumes and dust can also contribute to its development or make it worse.
Not everyone who has COPD gets all of these symptoms, and having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have COPD. To properly diagnose COPD, see your healthcare provider for a lung function (spirometry) and other tests. COPD gets worse over time, so don’t ignore it if you think you might have it.
Most people who have COPD start experiencing symptoms at approximately 40 years of age. It is most often diagnosed in middle age. According to the American Lung Association, more than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, though as many as 24 million may be living with it but not yet show symptoms or may not yet have been diagnosed. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and it is a major cause of disability. Women are especially vulnerable to COPD because they have smaller lungs and were heavily targeted by the tobacco industry as new smokers in the late 1960s. Estrogen has also been associated with worsening lung disease.
While there is no cure for COPD, there are things you can do to alleviate some of the symptoms, slow its progression and improve your quality of life. First, if you do smoke, quit. If you have trouble quitting on your own, see your provider for assistance finding a smoking cessation program that’s right for you.
Second, medications, such as short and long-acting bronchodilators, can help. Bronchodilators relax the muscles around your airways to make it easier for you to breathe. If symptoms are severe, you may also need an inhaled steroid to reduce inflammation in your airways. Your provider may also recommend a more comprehensive treatment program, known as pulmonary rehabilitation, that includes an exercise program, disease management training and nutritional and psychological counseling. Oxygen therapy and lung surgery may also be options for when symptoms become severe.
Finally, complementary therapies — such as yoga, massage and acupuncture — can help to alleviate the stress and pain of symptoms.