Your Health

Don’t let COPD take your breath away

Woman out of breath
Photo of Colin Reeve

Colin Reeve
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, July 28, 2017

It’s a little known fact that one of the most common reasons for admissions to hospital in Manitoba is a debilitating lung disease that a lot of people haven’t even heard of. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, affects about 700,000 Canadians and ranks as the fourth leading cause of death, according to a study published by the Canadian Respiratory Journal.

In most of these cases, the people being admitted to hospital have suffered what is called an “exacerbation” of COPD. That’s the technical term used to describe what is more commonly known in medical circles as a “lung attack,” a condition that can literally leave you breathless.

As a pharmacist with the My Health Team at ACCESS NorWest, I’d like to share some information about COPD and what you can do to avoid it.

Let’s start with a little background.

COPD is an umbrella term to describe a number of lung conditions, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The condition occurs when tiny sacs in your lungs – called alveoli – and the surrounding tissue – called parenchyma – are damaged by various contaminants, such as tobacco smoke and air pollution, or by a rare genetic disorder called Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency.

Interestingly, it is estimated that COPD affects about 28,000 Manitobans, but many who have the disease may not even know it. That’s because COPD progresses through four phases – from mild to severe – over the course of many years. A person may have early stage COPD in their 20s or 30s, but not realize it until they start experiencing more severe symptoms in their late 40s or 50s.

Indicators of early stage COPD can include a nagging cough that won’t go away, shortness of breath, or exercise intolerance – symptoms that some may mistakenly explain away as nothing more than the remnants of a nasty cold or flu bug.

But as the disease progresses over time, these symptoms will worsen. Eventually, the lungs will weaken to the point where they become vulnerable to a lung attack, which can be triggered by a lung infection, such as pneumonia, or some other type of irritant.

People suffering a lung attack will experience severe difficulty breathing, a cough, increased phlegm production and a marked decline in lung function. Anyone experiencing such an attack is advised to go to their nearest hospital emergency department for assessment and treatment, which can involve airway management, oxygen therapy and oral anti-inflammatory therapy (corticosteroid).

COPD is clearly a dangerous condition, with a rising mortality rate that is outstripping other major chronic health issues such as heart disease and stroke. But it is also a condition that can be managed fairly well, particularly if it is detected in its early stages.

That’s one reason why the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is raising awareness about COPD and making it easier for people to be tested and educated on how they can better manage their condition.

The Region recently placed spirometers – machines that can be used to test lung capacity and function – in six ACCESS Centres located throughout the city. It has also partnered with the Manitoba Lung Association to train staff on how to use these spirometers.

This is important because having these additional machines in place will boost the number of people who can be tested for COPD. That will ensure those who have the disease can get the education they need to manage their condition. Not only will that help the individual in question, it will also take pressure off the health-care system by reducing the number of people who could end eventually up in hospital with a lung attack.

For now, spirometer testing at ACCESS centres is available to people who are already attached to the primary care teams operating out of those facilities. But anyone else experiencing breathing issues can talk to their family doctor or health-care provider. They can do a preliminary assessment and refer you for a spirometry test, if necessary.

Of course, the best treatment for COPD is prevention. While the condition can be caused by a variety of environmental and genetic factors, the fact is that about 80 per cent of cases are caused by smoking. So if you do smoke, quit. Of course, doing so is not a guarantee that you’ll go through life COPD-free. But it will certainly improve your odds.

Colin Reeve is a pharmacist with the My Health Team at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s ACCESS NorWest. This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, July 28, 2017.

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