Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a severe lung disease. It affects approximately 24 million people in the USA and ranks at the third most common cause of death. International studies show it is an increasing health threat across the world, although in the US its occurrence in men has declined over the last twenty years. When this disease first starts to make its presence felt people beyond a certain age might misinterpret its early signs, in particular, shortness of breath and coughing, as nothing more than indications of the natural aging process. Quite often these symptoms do not appear at all until the disease reaches its more advanced stages.
There is no dispute that cigarette smoking is the number one cause of COPD. The statistics are startling. At least eighty percent of those who develop this disease are smokers or were previously smokers. Cigarette smoke causes irreversible damage and inflammation in the body's airways. The risks smokers face is so high that as many as one out of four of them can expect to get this life-threatening disease. The decline in the number of American men who smoke explains the fall in the number of people with COPD in the USA over the last two decades. In complete contrast, a higher percentage of women smoking accounts for the rise in the incidence of the disease in female Americans.
If a smoker is foolish to be indifferent to his or her health what right have they to be so reckless with the health of their family, friends or work colleagues? Research proves that someone who is regularly in the company of a smoker faces increased risk of developing COPD. The dangers of what is now often termed "passive smoking" have led Western countries to ban smoking on public transport, in workplaces and other closed areas. While these moves are welcome, they cannot protect people who live with smokers or often travel with them in their private vehicles.
While someone who does not smoke or live with a smoker faces a significantly reduced chance of getting COPD, this does not mean they are completely safe. Those who work with particular kinds of chemicals, or even products such as coal and grain, are also at risk if dust from their job gets into their lungs. Miners and textile workers are two of the groups with the highest risks. If one of these workers happens to be a smoker this risk is significantly greater. As many as one out of five COPD patients are thought to have got this disease through working in polluted workplace.
Even a home where nobody smokes might be an unhealthy environment when the risks of developing COPD are taken into consideration. The inhabitants of developed countries are in an advantageous position since they can usually heat their homes and do their cooking in ways that do not generate fumes. Most people in the underdeveloped world are not so fortunate. They must cook and heat their homes with fossil fuels or animal dung, and this puts them at a much greater risk. Studies show that fumes from cooking are the primary cause of women getting COPD in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East in contrast to the USA where cigarette smoking is the principal culprit.
Studies have shown that polluted city environments also expose citizens to increased COPD risks. The pollution may come from factories, but quite often it is caused by the fumes of all those car exhausts. In this regard, people of lower socio-economic status are more likely to develop this disease than others because their lack of means forces them to live in inner-city areas where they are closer to the primary sources of pollution.
A small number of COPD patients develop the illness because they suffer from a genetic imbalance called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. This substance is a protein that normally protects the lungs against various enzymes that naturally occur in the body. When COPD is caused by this genetic problem, it usually develops before the age of 35. Studies also show that smokers with brothers and sisters who got COPD are at more risk than others of also developing this disease.
The risks of COPD increase with age even in people who do not smoke. Quite likely this is linked to the way the body and its immune system become weaker due to the natural aging process. Indeed the dangers are multiplied for older adults who continue to smoke or share a home with a smoker.
Studies show that the state of health of the embryo in the womb and the child in their early years of development influence the likelihood of developing COPD. Babies born at a weight considered below normal and young children who often get lung infections are more likely to suffer from COPD in their adult years, even if they never touch a cigarette.
Some suggest that diet might be a factor increasing the chances of developing COPD both in smokers and non-smokers. More studies are needed to verify if it does have an influence and the extent of the influence it might have. Is it the poor diet that reduces resistance or the fact that many of those who lack proper nutrition live in poorer neighborhoods that are more exposed to pollutants?
Recent studies show that a certain number of child asthma sufferers develop COPD in later years and there does seem to be a connection. Since their lungs do not operate so well, it exposes them to a higher risk of getting a severe obstruction in their airways. Researchers in the USA are still investigating how early intervention could reduce such risks.
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