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November 8, 2011 > Are You Short of Breath?

Are You Short of Breath?

COPD Awareness Month Focuses on the Chronic Lung Disease

Does a walk up the stairs leave you breathless? Do you get tired easily? Do you have a cough you just can't seem to get rid of? You may have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). More than 12 million people in this country are diagnosed with COPD each year and an additional 12 million are likely to have the chronic lung disease but don't know it, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

November is the NHLBI's COPD Awareness Month, a time to focus attention on the disease. Also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, COPD is a serious lung disease that eventually makes it difficult to breathe.

"Symptoms may include one or more of the following: shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, and feeling like you can't catch your breath," said Sherry Harrington, a respiratory therapist who co-coordinates the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Washington Hospital. "People with COPD have a hard time taking a deep breath due to air trapping, airway swelling and/or increased mucus production. Exhalation, or getting the air out, is what is most difficult for someone with COPD."

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the NHLBI. The disease kills more than 120,000 people every year - that's one death every four minutes - and causes long-term disability.

The biggest single risk factor for COPD is smoking. The majority of people diagnosed with the chronic lung disease are current or former smokers over the age of 40, according to the NHLBI. However, long-term exposure to chemicals, secondhand smoke, and dust and fumes may also cause COPD.

"If you are having trouble breathing, you should see your health care provider," said respiratory therapist Rose Stortz, who also co-coordinates the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Washington Hospital. "A pulmonary function test can help to determine if you have COPD. It measures the total amount of air exhaled. It can tell how severe the disease is and help determine the treatment."

There is no cure for COPD, but you can slow the progression with treatment and lifestyle changes, Stortz said. That's why it's important to be aware of the symptoms and get an early diagnosis.

"People may not notice the symptoms," Harrington said. "They start slowing down and daily tasks like shopping and making the bed become more difficult. They often attribute this to getting older, so they don't go to the doctor. Most COPD patients go to the doctor after the progression of the disease has become debilitating, and the simple fact is they should have come in a lot sooner."

Better Breathing

There are a number of medications available today that can help control COPD symptoms and improve quality of life. Programs like Washington Hospital's Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Better Breathing for Life Club can also help people better manage the disease.

"People with COPD often give up the activities they enjoy because they get so short of breath," Harrington said. "They become more and more sedentary, which causes their muscles to weaken, making it even harder to get up off the couch. It's a vicious cycle."

Washington Hospital's Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program can help to break that vicious cycle. The program is twice a week for eight weeks. Participants work one-on-one with a respiratory therapist, who helps them build up their strength. They also learn breathing retraining techniques and ways to take control of their disease. It is one of the few pulmonary rehab programs that offer one-on-one care, according to Harrington.

"We serve a very diverse patient population, so we want to be sure we can meet their needs," Stortz said. "We design each session specifically for the individual."

Participants work with weights and exercise machines to get in shape and build up their strength and endurance. A new activity that was incorporated into the program last year is the Nintendo Wii Fit, a video game where players participate in physical activity.

"The Wii can improve balance, which is very important for people with COPD," Stortz said. "Good balance helps to prevent falls."

The rehab program helps people get back on their feet and moving again so
they can accomplish some of the daily tasks of living, Harrington said. They can also get back to some of the activities they enjoy, she added.

The Better Breathing for Life Club offers people with all types of lung disease, including COPD, and their loved ones education and support. The group meets on the fourth Wednesday of every month from 1 to 2:45 p.m. Meetings are held at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium at 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West), in Fremont.

"We have speakers who talk about a variety of topics that are important to people with COPD," Stortz said. "The meetings are free of charge and open to the public. Everyone is welcome."

For more information about the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program and Better Breathing for Life Club at Washington Hospital, visit

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