Breathe in oxygen, breathe out carbon dioxide, and then repeat—it’s so easy we don’t have to think about it.

Breathing is one of the most essential parts of the autonomic nervous system, which includes heart rate, blood pressure, and salivating. We don’t have to think about breathing, and most of us take it for granted—that is, until breathing becomes a conscious effort.

Common viruses and infections can make breathing difficult for days or weeks but clear up, so most of us have experienced congestion and wheezing illnesses. Still, smoking and lifestyle choices can lead to COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—a group of lung diseases that block airflow and make breathing difficult.

In this blog, you’ll learn more about COPD, its symptoms and risks, and how simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in treating the disease.

Symptoms and Risks of COPD

More than 15 million adults have been diagnosed with COPD—half are women—and many others live with the disease undiagnosed.1

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. External factors, like exposure to pollutants in the air, smoking, and secondhand smoke, can contribute to the disease, but genetics can also play a part.2

There are two main types of COPD: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms may start with subtle changes to your breathing, including:

  • Tightness in your chest
  • Difficulty taking deep breaths
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Feeling tired
  • Frequent colds and respiratory infections

Although some of these are symptoms of typical respiratory viruses, COPD may be the culprit when they persist for several weeks and get worse over time. Without treatment, COPD can cause troubling changes throughout the body—irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and heart failure—and changes to your quality of life. COPD may cause you trouble doing many of the everyday activities you love.

Mitigating Risks and Finding Treatments

Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. Because it’s a progressive disease, it will likely continue to progress. Still, there are many ways to mitigate risks, treat the symptoms, and control flare-ups.

The first treatment for COPD is changing your lifestyle. Because smoking is the top cause, quitting the habit can significantly boost your quality of life. Other lifestyle changes include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Participating in low-impact exercise
  • Wearing a mask in public
  • Washing your hands or using hand sanitizer frequently

Medical treatments can further help. These include:

  • An inhaler or oral corticosteroid
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Medications

Occasionally, COPD symptoms will worsen suddenly. Sudden symptoms, known as flare-ups, can be caused by breathing in pollutants, weather changes, anxiety, stress, or overly strenuous activity. These flare-ups can last up to two days and are more intense than typical symptoms.3 Signs of a flare-up include:

  • Inability to breathe deeply
  • Morning headaches
  • Noisy, wheezing breathing sounds
  • Change in mucus color

During a flare-up, individuals with COPD are encouraged to stay calm, take medicines as directed, and try to relax.

Early treatment is the best prevention. If you are concerned about your breathing, bring it up with your doctor and ask for a screening. It’s important to stay in close contact with your doctor after your diagnosis to find and maintain the best treatment plan for you.

A COPD and lung cancer diagnosis can be disheartening, but more lives can be saved with awareness of risk factors, increased screening, and prevention. Explore more lung health resources on our Lung Cancer Awareness blog. Members, discover more ways to manage COPD on your member portal.