If you are the average person, in moderate to good health, I’ll bet you don’t think much about the act of breathing. Unless you have a cold or illness, breathing happens naturally. If your lungs are compromised, all you need is the air that you breathe.
The average person takes
28,880 breaths per day
365 days per year
for a total of
breaths per year.
I’ve had asthma most of my life, so for me, breathing hasn’t been entirely taken for granted. But my asthma is very mild so that I don’t think about it a whole lot. My husband, who is my soul mate in oh-so-many ways, also has asthma. We avoid triggers (irritants like second-hand smoke and strong perfumes). We strive to stay healthy. For the most part, that’s worked for us and neither of us has spent a lot of time thinking about our breathing or our lungs. But over the past three years breathing comfortably has become something we no longer take for granted. Especially not since he was diagnosed with COPD.
WHAT IS COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, COPD, affects more than 32 million people in the United States alone. It is the third leading cause of death. And 80 – 90% of those cases are caused by smoking.
To understand COPD, it helps to understand how your lungs work.
When you breathe in, air travels through your mouth and nose, down a tube in your throat called your trachea. The trachea divides into two main bronchi, one leading to each lung. Inside the lung, the bronchi branch off as in the illustration above. Each of the bronchi branch into smaller tubes called bronchioles. These tubes end in bunches of little tiny balloon-like structures called alveoli. The tiny blood vessels pass through the alveoli. When air fills the little sacs, the blood vessels pick up oxygen to carry to the rest of your body. In COPD the air sacs are damaged or blocked which means your brain and body cannot get as much oxygen.
Types of COPD
There are two forms of COPD: chronic bronchitis which involves a chronic cough and excess mucus production and emphysema which involves damage to the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. Many people diagnosed with COPD have both, though one may be more severe than the other.
People with COPD have difficulty expelling air from their lungs, they feel breathless. Wheezing, coughing, a feeling of tightness in their chest and chronic fatigue are also symptoms of COPD.
These symptoms develop slowly over time and usually are not diagnosed as COPD until middle-age or later. Because the disease is so slow to develop, many people may have it and not know it.
It is diagnosed by a combination of the symptoms you report to your physician, your medical history, blood tests, chest x-rays, pulmonary function tests, CT scans, and/ or procedures such as bronchoscopy, bronchi alveolar lavage, and/or lung biopsy.
There is no cure for COPD. There is no way to repair the damage to your lungs, to regrow your alveoli. The disease progresses with time making it more and more difficult to engage in normal activities. However early diagnosis, treatments and lifestyle changes can help you stay active and slow the progress of the disease.
Staggering information, isn’t it?
My husband stopped smoking years more than thirty years ago. Yet, the damage to his lungs was there, getting worse in tiny increments of time until his symptoms began to interfere with his activities. It took time for us to realize a problem existed and more time for the doctors to decide upon a diagnosis.
There are good things about this diagnosis. Knowledge is power. We know what the problem is and what we can do to make it better. The air that you breathe is a phrase that has new meaning for us. We are vigilant about only visiting areas with air that won’t further irritate his lungs. And new, improved medications are being developed as we speak.
We have made, and are working on, lifestyle changes. He’s receiving good medical care and responding to treatment. He does not need extra oxygen.
He has good days and bad. On bad days even tying his shoes can leave him short of breath and exhausted. Bad days are debilitating for him, painful for me to watch, and they frighten us both. I don’t share this with you to get your sympathy or your pity. I share this for two reasons.
#1. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
If you think you or a loved one may have COPD, don’t wait, see a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment. The sooner you’re diagnosed and begin treatment, the more you can slow the progress of this disease.
If you are still smoking and think this won’t happen to you. Think again. There is no way to tell what damage has been done to your lungs until the damage causes symptoms. Stop smoking. Now. Your alveoli are precious. Don’t waste them.
For additional information about COPD, check out:
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
#2. Carpe Diem
Always remember Carpe Diem. Seize the day. You never know how many days are on your life calendar. So make sure to
Do something you love every day.
Be present with someone you love every day.
Seize an opportunity to laugh, every day.
Appreciate the time and place you are at, every day.
Title of this post adapted from the hit ballad, The Air That I Breathe, written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, and recorded by The Hollies in 1974.