6 Things to Know If You're Short Of Breath

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It's normal to need to catch your breath if you're walking briskly, but if you have trouble just getting up the stairs or taking a stroll around the block, it may be a sign of a larger problem known as COPD.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is an umbrella term used to describe serious lung conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and smoking is the biggest risk factor. While you may not have heard of COPD, it's the third leading cause of death in the U.S. In fact, it's as common as diabetes and asthma, says Byron Thomashow MD, chairman of the board of the COPD Foundation and a clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

The illness may be worse for women than men, but the good news is that it's both preventable and treatable. Here is what you need to know for healthy lungs so you can breathe easy.

Symptoms can be sneaky

Over 13 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with COPD, and an estimated 12 million people have it and just don't know it. COPD's symptoms, which include shortness of breath and a persistent cough with or without mucous, gradually get worse over time, so it's easy to mistake them for something else. You may think shortness of breath is just a sign that you're out of shape or the result of yet another candle on your birthday cake. A chronic cough that doesn't go away may be pegged as allergies or asthma and treated with OTC meds. "These symptoms should be treated early before it gets to the point where you can't breathe," says Dr. Thomashow. To discover if your symptoms might be COPD, ask yourself: How does my breathing compare to a year ago? Can I still do the same activities? Can I do what I want to do?

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COPD may be worse for women

COPD used to be thought of as a man's disease, but now more women are diagnosed with and die of the illness than men. Since it typically takes decades for COPD to develop, experts speculate that one reason for the increase is that smoking rates for women peaked around the 1970s--about 10 years later than for men--and smoking is the biggest risk factor. Still, smoking rates alone may not be the only reason for the rise. "Some evidence suggests that women may be more genetically susceptible to COPD, but it's not understood exactly why," says Dr. Thomashow. "Also, women may be more sensitive to toxins, such as secondhand smoke or diesel fumes from traffic, and may suffer more when exposed to the same amount of toxins as men."

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You don't have to be a smoker to be at risk

While being a smoker is the biggest risk factor for COPD, just because you've never taken a puff doesn't mean you're not in danger. Both women and children have smaller lungs, and that means airways are narrower so it takes less inflammation to restrict them. This also makes them more prone to damage from secondhand smoke. "Just being in a smoking environment can contribute to COPD," says Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association and a professor of medicine at Stonybrook University. "Being around secondhand smoke as a pregnant woman can affect the baby's developing lungs, which might lead to COPD later in life."

Surprising Side Effects of Smoke

COPD sometimes gets misdiagnosed

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