Most people take breathing for granted. However, if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, breathing easy actually may not be easy.
COPD is the term used to describe a group of lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe. Emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthmatic bronchitis can all cause COPD symptoms. What these diseases have in common is obstructed air flow through the lungs, says South Miami Hospital  pulmonologist Rodney Benjamin, M.D. 
COPD is a major cause of disability and the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association . It’s estimated that more than 12 million people are living with COPD, and millions more may have the disease and don’t even know it.
Who’s at risk?
Are you at risk for developing COPD? You are if you smoke cigarettes, says the National Institutes of Health . Over time, breathing tobacco smoke irritates the airways and destroys the stretchy fibers in the lungs. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD symptoms.
Long-term exposure to other lung irritants such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, wood burning smoke, chemical fumes, dust or mold may contribute to COPD. With these risk factors in mind, Dr. Benjamin advises you to take charge of your environment to protect your lung health.
In rare cases, some progressive forms of asthma and a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency – a low level of a protein made in the liver – also may play a role in causing COPD.
Coughing up mucus often is the first sign of the disease, says Dr. Benjamin. Other common symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness and frequent lung infections.
Although these symptoms are more common in older people who have smoked for many years, a simple test called spirometry may detect early lung function changes in younger people.
“Anyone who smokes should be screened for COPD – before symptoms develop,” said Dr. Benjamin. “COPD is a progressive disease, meaning it typically gets worse over time. That’s why it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing any symptoms common to COPD.”
There is no cure for the disease, but lifestyle changes and treatments can help you feel better, stay more active, slow down loss of lung function, prevent complications and improve your overall health.
If you smoke, quitting is the most important step you can take to treat COPD, says Dr. Benjamin.
“It’s never too late to stop smoking,” he said. “As soon as you quit, your lung function starts to improve.”
Measures you can take to slow the progress of the disease include taking medicines, using oxygen therapy, exercising and attending pulmonary rehabilitation .
Prescribed medications, such as bronchodilators and inhaled steroids, and oxygen therapy also can help relieve symptoms or treat an infection.
A comprehensive COPD treatment plan should include pulmonary rehabilitation – a program that includes medical management, emotional support, exercise, breathing retraining and nutritional counseling.
“Pulmonary rehabilitation can help you learn to breathe – and function – at the highest level possible,” Dr. Benjamin said. “This program stresses healthy lifestyle habits such as physical activity and healthy eating. Physical activity is a game changer when it comes to quality of life.”
Many people with COPD also benefit from staying socially active and participating in support groups for smoking cessation and COPD. South Miami Hospital’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation department holds a quarterly support group, Support for People Living with COPD , which meets next on Thursday, Aug. 14. Additionally, Doctors Hospital  is hosting Get Your Life Back: Techniques for Living with Breathing Disorders , on Thursday, June 26.
“Early detection of COPD is important,” Dr. Benjamin said. “Many of the irreversible effects of chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic asthmatic bronchitis can be avoided with timely diagnosis and treatment.”