Reducing Your Risk of COPD

Authored by The Rx Advocates, / Medically Reviewed by Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is one disease that has a clear cause, and there are ways to prevent it.

COPD affects more than 16 million people and is the third leading cause of death in the United States. It is suspected that many more people have the disease and do not even know it. While there is currently no cure for COPD, there are treatments available to alleviate symptoms.

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a chronic disease of the lungs. COPD causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Lungs become inflamed and thicken. The area responsible for oxygen exchange is destroyed. Symptoms of this disease are difficulty breathing, cough, mucus production, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

The two most common conditions that can contribute to COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Usually, these two conditions go hand in hand and occur together. People who have COPD are at a higher risk of developing other diseases such as heart disease and lung cancer.

COPD can have several factors contributing to its development. A main cause of COPD is tobacco smoking. Smokers inhale more than 4,000 chemicals. As these chemicals enter the lungs, they cause irritation. The body rushes white blood cells to this area to destroy the irritants and destroy lung tissue in the process.

It should be noted that not every smoker will develop COPD. People may be misdiagnosed as having COPD when they may have a less common lung condition.

COPD diagnosis requires a thorough evaluation of the patient. The testing includes a lung function test, chest x-rays, CT scans, arterial blood gas tests as well as lab testing. Testing can be extensive, but is important in order to rule out other diseases to properly diagnose COPD.

Fumes, chemicals, and dust in some work environments can also cause COPD. These chemicals could include carbon monoxide, ammonia, or fumes. When these chemicals are being inhaled regularly, the body responds as it would to tobacco smoke, attacks the irritants, and inadvertently destroys lung tissue. The chemicals and fumes can overwhelm the body’s defenses and the body cannot protect itself properly.

It is possible for a person to have a genetic disorder that can contribute to COPD development. A disease called alpha-1 antitrypsin causes people to have lower levels of the blood protein with the same name. This protein is what protects the lungs from irritation. It is possible to be tested for this genetic disorder with a simple blood test.

It is possible that other genetic factors could be underlying and possibly contribute to the development of COPD. This could answer why 1 in 5 smokers develop COPD, and not all smokers will. There are studies that are being investigated to learn more about genetic associations with COPD.

What are the Symptoms of COPD?

Unfortunately, COPD symptoms do not usually appear until significant lung damage has already occurred. These symptoms will worsen over time, especially if exposure to smoking, fumes, or chemical irritants continues.

Signs and symptoms of COPD can include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Frequent respiratory infections (infective bronchitis)
  • Chronic cough that produces mucus
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss as the disease progresses
  • Swelling in ankles, feet, or legs

Comorbid conditions are more common in people who develop COPD. Experts believe that the inflammation in the lungs also contributes to inflammation in other areas of the body. This can contribute to the other conditions. These conditions may include the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes
  • Depression 
  • Arthritis 
  • Sleep apnea

It is common for people with COPD to have flare-ups called exacerbations. During exacerbations, symptoms become much worse and can last for several days.

Reducing the Risk of COPD

Because COPD does have some clear causes, there are ways to reduce one’s risk of developing the disease.

The number one way is to never smoke tobacco or to quit immediately. There are many ways to assist with tobacco cessation, including medications and cessation programs. It is important to find what works in order to be able to stop smoking for good. Many people are able to manage their COPD much better once they quit smoking.

Occupational exposures in the workplace should be minimized when possible. When proper workplace regulations and protocols are being followed, risk should be reduced. If workplace exposure is an issue, find a supervisor and discuss the best ways to protect yourself. A workplace should have protective equipment available such as respirators available when they are needed.

It is also possible to reduce your risks and symptom flare-ups in the home. Plug-in air fresheners can emit irritants to the lungs and should not be used. Filters in dryers and vents should be cleaned or vacuumed as often as possible to prevent dust and particles from building up. Household cleaners should be used in well-ventilated areas as per label instructions.

Air pollution can also be especially bad for people who have been diagnosed with COPD. It is important for people to stay indoors when the levels are high. Most weather forecasts on local news stations or weather apps on smartphones report on this information.

What Happens if a Person is Diagnosed with COPD?

While COPD is chronic, there are some changes to lifestyles that health care providers would recommend to slow the disease progression. These include smoking cessation and reducing the risk of inhaling fumes and chemicals.

In addition, your health care provider may prescribe medications. There are some medications available to help alleviate symptoms and allow patients to slow the progression of the disease and continue to be able to lead an active life. Some medications that may be prescribed include: 

Do You Need Help Paying for Your COPD Medications?

Now that you are aware of how to prevent Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, hopefully, you can avoid having to take medications for it. But if you are diagnosed, the financial burden of having to cover the cost of monthly prescriptions can be daunting.

At The Rx Advocates, we want you to know that help is available to assist with paying for your COPD medications. We work with many patient assistance programs and can help with any of the medications on the list above and many others.

To learn more about our program, please contact us today.

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