July 01, 2012

Chronic lung disease

Pay attention to your breath

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Persistent shortness of breath and a chronic cough lasting more than three to six weeks may signal a potentially serious or chronic lung condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD refers to a group of lung diseases that limit airflow as you exhale and make it increasingly difficult to breathe out. COPD affects millions of Americans and is usually attributed to exposure to tobacco smoke and airborne irritants over a period of time. Most often, it occurs in long-term or former smokers. Left untreated and allowed to progress, COPD literally takes your breath away, making it a leading cause of death in the United States. Damage done to the lungs by COPD isn’t fully reversible. That’s why early diagnosis, treatment and prevention — particularly physical activity and smoking cessation — are critically important. When COPD is detected early, management improves symptoms and survival.

Breath interrupted

Each time you inhale, air travels through your windpipe into airways in your lungs called bronchial tubes. These airways branch many times in your lungs, dividing into thousands of smaller, thinner tubes called bronchioles. At the end of each bronchiole are clusters of air sacs (alveoli). Inside the walls of the alveoli, tiny blood vessels (capillaries) absorb inhaled oxygen and release carbon dioxide so it can be exhaled.

Healthy bronchioles and alveoli are stretchy, so when you breathe in, each little air sac fills up like a balloon, and when you exhale, each one deflates. Although a slight decline...