COPD: “It’s like Suffocating to Death”

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By Alison Johnson

Many people might be able to guess the first- and second-leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, followed by all types of cancer.

As for No. 3, few probably could.

It’s not stroke, not accidents, not Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes, but Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. Now, a new anti-smoking campaign from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is out to raise awareness of a brutal disease that gradually steals people’s ability to breathe.

COPD is part of the CDC’s national “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign, a series of advertisements highlighting the painful toll of smoking-related illnesses. The ads, appearing on television, radio and in print, are scheduled to run through the end of June.

“The message is that smoking can do many things besides cause lung cancer, which gets the most attention,” says Dr. David Mannino, a pulmonary medicine specialist and Professor of Medicine at the University of Kentucky. “For years, COPD was one of the more ignored diseases – for reasons unclear to me – but thankfully it is getting more attention now.”

COPD is an umbrella term for progressive lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It kills more than 120,000 Americans a year – about one person every four minutes, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. While non-smokers can develop COPD, cigarettes are linked to between 80 and 90 percent of those deaths.

At first, people feel “a shortness of air that won’t go away,” says Dr. Mannino, also a board member of the COPD Foundation, a non-profit research and education organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Miami, Fla. “It’s like an asthma attack that won’t end.”

Over time, worsening symptoms can include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, rapid heartbeat, mental confusion, weight loss and swollen feet and ankles. Yet of the 15 million Americans living with COPD, nearly 40 percent continue to smoke, CDC statistics show.

[quote]“It’s like suffocating to death.”[/quote]

Michael, the patient featured in the “Tips” campaign, is a longtime smoker who was diagnosed with COPD at age 44 but didn’t quit smoking until eight years later, when he woke up gasping for air. At 57, the Alaska native and Army veteran has had parts of his lungs removed and needs a lung transplant, which he may be too weak to survive. He no longer has energy to play with his two grandchildren.

Many people might be able to guess the first- and second-leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, followed by all types of cancer. Michael tells viewers. “Every cell in my body was screaming for oxygen. Losing your breath is losing your life force.”

Treatments for COPD, including inhaled medications and exercise programs, have improved significantly over the past 10 years, especially for people who get help early, Dr. Mannino says. Still, by far the best prevention and therapy is to avoid cigarettes.

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