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New Ulm Medical Center

Spreading COPD awareness

World COPD Day takes place November 20, and New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC) – part of Allina Health, is marking the date with a community awareness initiative.

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is a progressive lung disease that causes the lungs to lose elasticity. People with COPD have swollen and inflamed airways and lose their ability to clear phlegm and mucus. Someone with COPD usually has a chronic cough or shortness of breath, according to Sarah Leslie, pharmacy coordinator at NUMC.

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Sandy Orr, RT, prepares to administer a spirometry test, which measures how well a person’s lungs are working. It is the used for both COPD and for asthma patients.

Those who smoke are at the biggest risk for COPD.

“Not everyone who smokes will get COPD, but the majority who have it are or were smokers,” Leslie said.

People with prolonged exposure to certain household, workplace or agricultural chemicals and irritants are also at a higher risk for COPD. COPD is more common in people older than age 40, but children and younger adults can put themselves at risk later in life if they are exposed to lung irritants including smoke. Some people have a genetic condition, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which can cause COPD.

COPD is an important disease to catch early as it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States. It is estimated that 12 million people in the United States have undiagnosed COPD. In 2009, nearly 134,000 people died from COPD, according to the American Lung Association.

The main symptoms of COPD are a chronic cough, wheezing, chest tightness, coughing up phlegm and mucus, frequent upper respiratory infections that lead to bronchitis and pneumonia, and shortness of breath with activity.

“The person may call it smoker’s cough, but it could be COPD,” Leslie said. “Any chronic cough or frequent upper respiratory infections should be a sign to go to the doctor and get screened for COPD.”

Testing and treating COPD

“Unfortunately, there’s no way to reverse the disease,” Leslie said. “That’s why early screening is important. We want to catch it early while people are younger so we can make more of an impact. We want to slow progression.”

The test for COPD is called spirometry, which measures how well a person’s lungs are working. It is the same test used for asthma patients.

Treatment options for COPD include medicines called bronchodilators, inhaled steroids and sometimes a systemic steroid.

NUMC encourages people who might have COPD to get screened for it. Health care providers also can check for other health problems that might be related to the disease. A patient’s primary care provider can order the test.

NUMC also offers pulmonary rehabilitation to help people live better with lung disease. Respiratory, physical and occupational therapists work with patients to improve their ability to exercise, discuss how lung disease affects their lives and give them coping techniques. Call 507-217-5956 for more information about pulmonary rehabilitation.

In tandem with the American Lung Association, NUMC offers a Better Breathers Club. Better Breathers is a support group to help those with lung disease. Many of the group attendees have COPD. Each meeting includes patient education.

The Better Breathers Club meets on the third Thursday of each month from 2-3:30 p.m. Call 507-217-5956 for more information on Better Breathers.

World COPD Day is organized by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.