Respiratory Rx: How to Breathe Easier
Sometimes taking a deep breath is the problem rather than the solution -- especially for women.
Respiratory illnesses are highly prevalent among women, especially in recent years, according to experts.
Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, are the most common respiratory problems among women, and women are also more likely than men to develop both of these conditions.
Dr. Gregory Golden, a pulmonologist at Banner Health Clinic in Loveland, Colo., says smoking likely contributes to a high percentage of women with asthma in the United States.
COPD is the fourth-leading cause of death and second-leading cause of disability in this country.
The good news is that while both conditions are potentially serious and on the rise, they don’t necessarily lead to lung cancer.
However, COPD/emphysema because of smoking does increase the likelihood of getting lung cancer, says Dr. Golden.
Asthma causes your airways, or bronchial tubes, to become inflamed, swollen and hypersensitive to stimuli such as smoke, chemical fumes, changes in weather, respiratory infections and mold.
“One can’t point to a specific cause, but there are several aspects in one’s life that can mean X is more likely to develop asthma than Y,” says Dr. Golden.
Factors include family medical history, secondhand smoke exposure, air pollution, respiratory childhood infections, low birth weight and being overweight.
The main symptom of COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is difficulty breathing.
Emphysema damages the small air sacs, which are like millions of tiny balloons in the lungs. The damage makes it difficult to expel air, Dr. Golden explains.
Chronic bronchitis, meanwhile, causes inflammation and irritation of the airways, which can produce thick mucus that clogs the airways and makes it hard to breathe.
COPD is caused by cumulative damage to the lungs from smoking, environmental pollutants, genetic conditions, poor health and lifestyle habits.
When to see the doctor
With mild respiratory or breathing difficulty symptoms, you may want to wait a couple of weeks before scheduling an appointment with your primary care physician, to see if things clear up on their own.
“But if you’re severely uncomfortable while coughing, especially if accompanied by high fever, or if you have a bloody cough, or can’t exercise with ease anymore, you should see a doctor,” says Dr. Golden.
Also, if you’ve had an illness from which you’ve otherwise recovered but still have a persistent cough or shortness of breath, it’s best to make a doctor’s appointment to be checked for that, he added.
Putting it to the test
Several tests are commonly used to diagnose lung disease. If your doctor suspects asthma or COPD, he or she might order a chest X-ray, or pulmonary function tests (PFTs) that measure how well your lungs take in and release air and transfer oxygen into the blood.
More advanced diagnostic procedures include:
- Blood gas tests to measure the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood
- Bronchoscopy, which lets doctors see your airways using a tube passed through your mouth or nose into your lungs
- Computed tomography (CT) scans to detect tumors, bleeding or fluid in your lungs
- Electrocardiography (ECG or EKG), which can help determine whether heart disease is causing your symptoms.
Treatment for respiratory diseases vary depending on the diagnosis. Steroid inhalers reduce inflammation and swelling in the airways, while bronchodilators open up and relax constricted airways.
For most people with asthma, an inhaled corticosteroid is the first recommended treatment, with a bronchodilator added if needed.
For those with COPD, it’s the opposite--a bronchodilator is the first line of defense, and inhaled corticosteroids are usually reserved for only those whose COPD can’t be managed with bronchodilators.
But physicians say the most important prescription for respiratory diseases for either prevention or treatment is two simple words: Don’t smoke.
“It cannot be emphasized enough: To quit smoking if you do or not pick up the habit is one of the best decisions you can make for yourself,” says Dr. Golden.
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- Ongoing cough
- Coughing with mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
Source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
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