Examining the Link Between Smoking and COPD
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, is a progressive lung disease that affects anywhere from 11 million to 24 million people in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. The condition is characterized by wheezing, coughing, and increasing shortness of breath that can eventually interfere with daily activities.
COPD occurs when less air flows into and out of the lungs as a result of one or more of the following:
- The airway walls become thick and swollen.
- The airways, lungs, and air sacs become less elastic.
- The airways contain excess mucus, which can cause them to become clogged.
- The walls of the air sacs are destroyed.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common forms of COPD. COPD is classified in stages ranging from I to IV, with stage IV being considered “end stage.”
Smokers and COPD
The World Health Organization considers smoking to be the leading cause of COPD. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of those with COPD are current or former smokers. Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars travels through the windpipe and eventually makes its way into the tiny air sacs called alveoli. Over time, the smoke can cause the air sacs to become inflamed, stiff, and to deteriorate. There is no way to reverse the lung damage once it occurs; however, various medical treatments can alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of the disease, including:
- Inhaled steroids
- Oxygen therapy
- Pulmonary rehabilitation
- Smoking cessation
Non-smokers and COPD
Although it is unusual, it is possible for a non-smoker to develop COPD. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of individuals with COPD have never smoked. Several factors may cause a non-smoker to develop COPD, including:
- A genetic abnormality called alpha-1antitrypsin deficiency, which has been directly linked to COPD.
- Excessive exposure to toxic fumes and other pollutants.
- Long-term exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Under-treated asthma.
- Women are at greater risk for developing COPD than men due to the smaller size and greater reactivity of their airways.
Prognosis for COPD
Once COPD begins to affect lung function and symptoms start to develop, the long-term outlook is similar for both smokers and non-smokers. Non-smokers do have an advantage in that they do not have to go through the difficult process of stopping smoking.
Minimizing COPD Symptoms
There are steps that individuals with COPD can take to manage their COPD symptoms. These include:
- Take medications as prescribed.
- Get flu and pneumonia vaccines as directed by your doctor.
- Exercise to build lung strength and stamina.
- Shed excess pounds that can make it more difficult to breathe.
- Avoid irritants and pollutants. This includes avoiding secondhand smoke and trying to stay indoors on days when air quality is expected to be poor.
- Eating a diet rich in antioxidants, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids that can help reduce inflammation and improve lung function.
If you are a smoker with COPD who is having trouble quitting, you should talk to your doctor about smoking cessation therapies, including medications, support groups, and counseling.