Dyspnea is a medical term for shortness of breath or feeling like you can’t breathe in enough air. It can be a warning sign of a health problem that needs treatment or a symptom of an existing chronic disease. If you are living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it may be a daily reminder that your lungs are working harder than usual to get your body the oxygen it needs to function. And while having a disease such as COPD can feel lonely and isolating, a recent COPD Trends Report by the American Lung Association highlights the millions of Americans living with COPD who are, at times, “air hungry.”

COPD is a leading cause of both disability and death in the United States. As of 2018, 16.4 million adults in the United States reported a diagnosis of COPD, which includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. This represents 6.6% of adults, with the highest rates of disease occurring in those over the age of 65 years, but notable to mention that adults between 18 – 64 have also been diagnosed with COPD. Rates of disease differ among states, from 4% in Hawaii to 15.3% in West Virginia. Health professionals believe millions more are living with undiagnosed COPD based on lung function  tests indicating breathing impairment

Most COPD cases are caused by smoking cigarettes, and COPD rates are much higher among current and former smokers compared to never smokers. While COPD is not a curable disease, it is a treatable one. And if you smoke, one of the best things you can do for your lung health is quit using tobacco products for good. The American Lung Association has decades of experience with our Freedom From Smoking® program. Some people might say, “It’s too late, I already have a lung disease.” The good news is that simply isn’t the case. Quitting smoking can help slow your decline in lung function, help the medications you take work more effectively and ease some of the respiratory symptoms you experience. 

Psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety, are common among those with COPD. In our report, 42.8% of those with COPD reported moderate or worse psychological distress, compared to 21.1% of those not living with COPD. Another challenge identified in the COPD Trends Brief are the activity limitations resulting from the challenges of living with COPD. This can impact your ability to work, get around, do chores and manage personal care. Our report showed that about 50% of individuals with COPD report being limited in at least one of these areas, compared to only 14.3% of adults without COPD.

Whether living with comorbidities such as depression or anxiety, or struggling with activity limitations, help and support are available. First, you can join the Patient & Caregiver Network for direct access to education, support and access to others living with COPD. The American Lung Association also hosts a Living with COPD online community where you can engage with other patients and caregivers also managing this chronic lung disease in a supportive and moderated, free and online platform. For your time sensitive questions, contact staff at the Lung HelpLine (1-800-LUNGUSA) to discuss treatment options, medication side effects, communication strategies and available resources and support.

COPD impacts millions of Americans, and tens of millions more who love and care for those living with the disease. For those living with daily symptoms, some of which include dyspnea, chest tightness, cough and fatigue, encouragement and inclusion from friends and family can make a world of difference. 

When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.

COPD is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, with an estimated economic cost of close to $50 billion dollars each year. The COPD Trends Brief is an important tool to help healthcare systems, policy makers, community leaders and the public learn more about who is most impacted by COPD and how widespread the impact of the disease is on Americans. 

View the report.  

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