COPD – Helping the Missing Millions

(February 24, 2010)

About 24 million Americans suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  It's a staggering number, made more so by the fact that only about half of them have been diagnosed.  The rest, some 12 million, are unaware that they are living with a progressive, chronic illness that when detected and treated early enough, can be controlled and its impact on their quality of life minimized.  The challenge is finding and helping COPD's missing millions.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is a very serious disease, and the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. The good news is that COPD is preventable and treatable.  But like most diseases, the earlier COPD is diagnosed, the better one's chances for leading a full and high-quality life.

The American Lung Association has helped provide information and support to people with lung diseases, such as COPD, for over a century.  To help the missing millions, we need to reach out to those at risk and urge them to get tested.  Smoking is the primary cause of COPD.  If you are a current or former smoker and have any symptoms of COPD, get tested as soon as possible.  Luckily, the test, called spirometry, is simple and quick.   If someone you love is a current or former smoker with symptoms, urge them to get tested too. 

According to Dr. Norman Edelman, the American Lung Association's Chief Medical Officer, "Currently, it is estimated that only 21-35% of primary care physicians order spirometry for their symptomatic smokers.  If people with COPD can not only be aware, but know the next steps to take with a physician visit and spirometry, their COPD stands a better chance of being treated according to medical guidelines that improve health outcomes."

If diagnosed with COPD, the American Lung Association is ready to help with information and support for those with COPD and their loved ones.  We are here to help people with COPD quit smoking, learn personal management techniques, improve communication with their doctor, and become more physically active, which along with the proper medication, can make a big difference in one's quality of life. 

"Our message about COPD is one of hope," says Janine Chambers, the American Lung Association's Director of Adult Lung Disease Programs.  "The key is to get tested early and then learn as much as you can about managing the disease. The bottom line is, COPD is treatable and you can live a long and active life with COPD."

COPD Basics

  • COPD is a chronic disease that causes shortness of breath and makes breathing difficult and less effective.
  • COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • About 12 million people have been diagnosed, but as many as another 12 million may have the disease and not know it.
  • COPD is preventable and treatable.
  • Getting diagnosed is done by a simple breathing test called Spirometry.

Signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • Constant coughing, sometimes called "smoker's cough"
  • Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities
  • Producing a lot of sputum (also called phlegm or mucus)
  • Feeling like you can't breathe or take a deep breath
  • Wheezing

Once Diagnosed:

  • If you're a smoker – quit now!
  • Take any medicine you're prescribed exactly as instructed. If you are having problems, talk with your healthcare provider about possible solutions.
  • Get active!  Keep as physically fit as possible and discuss pulmonary rehabilitation with your physician.  Pulmonary Rehabilitation can help you rebuild strength and reduce shortness of breath.
  • Educate yourself.  The Lung Association has a wealth of information and resources to help you better understand your lungs and COPD.
  • Get Support. Controlling COPD is easier as a team effort.  Ask for and get support from those who love you.

COPD Support:

In your own community and nationwide, the American Lung Association has available: