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Published on November 30, 2017

COPD diagnosis

COPD: What You Need to Know

Just a year before his death, beloved actor Leonard Nimoy tweeted a warning to nearly a million followers: “I quit smoking 30 yrs ago. Not soon enough. I have COPD. Grandpa says, quit now!! LLAP.” From his diagnosis until his death, Nimoy used social media as a tool to educate people about the dangers of smoking as well as COPD.

In February 2015, Nimoy, well-known for his role as “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock, passed away.

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a disease in which the lungs and the surrounding muscles have to work harder than usual to breathe.

“The elastic fibers that keep the lungs spongy have been destroyed by smoking,” said Anthony Hericks, DO, Avera Medical Group pulmonologist. “The air sacs and airways collapse prematurely.”

Hericks compared it to a balloon. After filling the balloon with air, release half back into the environment. Return to blowing air into a balloon; again, release some from the balloon’s tail. Your lungs never fully fill with fresh oxygen, nor fully discard the carbon dioxide.

“It feels like you’re always short of breath; that feeling of constant suffocation isn’t pleasant,” said Hericks.

It’s not just smokers who develop COPD, but also those exposed to secondhand smoke, farmers and other professionals who work with toxic chemicals, or people who have lived with woodburning stoves. Symptoms often include coughing, fatigue, shortness of breath, an overproduction of mucus, a feeling of heaviness in the chest, decreased tolerance for exercise and recurrent infections.

If you’re a smoker or just find yourself more out of breath than in the past, there’s a way to check for COPD. Spirometry is a pulmonary function study that tests whether an obstruction of any kind is present in the lungs.

“The only thing to help people live longer is to quit smoking,” Hericks said. “Nothing can reverse the damage done from smoking, but it doesn’t progress. It’s just there; it’s like a scar. While it doesn’t worsen, your lung function trails behind others who didn’t smoke.”

Treatment for COPD depends on the amount of damage your lungs have sustained. “The ultimate goal of any treatment is to open the airway and allow you to breathe more easily,” said Hericks, “as well as elevate your quality of life.”

Your physician may prescribe a combination of treatment options to calm any breathing difficulties. These include:

  • Bronchodilator – An inhaler-looking device, either for short-term relief or long-term use, a bronchodilator opens the airway.
  • Prescription – Roflumilast, commonly known as Daliresp®, is an anti-inflammatory pill that prevents symptoms from becoming more intense.
  • Inhalers – “Inhalers can improve your quality of life while on the go,” said Hericks, “and prevent unnecessary trips to the hospital by delaying bronchitis episodes.”
  • Oxygen – Medical oxygen equipment may be prescribed if you need oxygen for 18 or more hours a day. Avera Home Medical Equipment locations found in communities across the Avera footprint offer oxygen machines as well as staff who will teach you how to use and care for your equipment.
  • Surgery – Extensive damage to your lungs may require surgery. Lung volume reduction surgery, an experimental procedure, removes damaged lung tissue to allow the remaining healthy lung the opportunity to function more effectively. “Lung transplant surgery is another option,” said Hericks, “but you are exchanging one set of problems for another; the five-year survival rate after lung transplant is 50 percent.”

Treatment is tailored to your needs. In addition, respiratory therapists offer further education on COPD, inhalers, the importance of exercise as well as your particular treatment plan.

Quitting is hard, but you owe it to yourself and those you care about to continue the fight against smoking. Visit to find a pulmonologist or internal medicine physician near you for resources on breaking the habit.

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