The killer too few have heard of

November was COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) Awareness Month, devoted to the lethal killer too few people have heard of.  It has become the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer.

COPD generally is a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The condition can destroy the lung’s airways, making their walls thick, inflamed and inelastic. The airways also become clogged with excess mucus. The progressive, incurable disease makes breathing difficult. Cigarette smoking causes 80-90 percent of COPD. Breathing second-hand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes or dust from the environment or workplace can also contribute to COPD.

One of the reasons COPD may not get the attention accorded other chronic diseases is the unspoken belief that COPD is self-inflicted and undeserving of charitable funding for research and treatment.

The COPD rate has remained steady for the past decade. COPD has killed more men than women by a ratio of 6-1. However, the burden is beginning to shift from men to women. Women began smoking in greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, and COPD symptoms generally begin to emerge decades later. About 20 percent of U.S. adults continue to smoke, and about 25 percent of those eventually will develop COPD.

According to the World Health Organization, COPD will be the third-leading cause of death worldwide by 2030. An international study found that 1 out of 4 people aged 35 or older are likely to develop COPD in their lifetimes, a risk comparable to that of diabetes and asthma.

An estimated 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, and a comparable number likely have it but are unaware of it. Common symptoms are shortness of breath, chronic cough and difficulty in performing daily tasks such as housework or climbing stairs. Fewer than 3 out of 4 U.S. adults are aware of COPD. The federal government launched a campaign in 2007 to raise awareness among patients and health-care providers.

COPD is associated with several other chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes. Anxiety and depression are also common in COPD patients, in part because the disease often isolates them socially. One study concluded that 80 percent of COPD patients had depression, anxiety or both.

The most common causes of death in patients with COPD are cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Lung cancer is more than four times more common in COPD patients.

Each case of COPD costs patients and the health-care system about $6,000 annually.

Early detection of COPD can change its course and progress. A simple test can be used to measure pulmonary function and make a diagnosis. The goals of COPD treatment are to relieve symptoms, slow the disease’s progress, improve stamina and prevent hospitalization and emergency-department visits. Treatments include medication, pulmonary or lung rehabilitation, oxygen treatment and surgery.