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Cigarette Smoke and Your Health
Written By : Mark Rosenberg, MD 
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Do you remember when smoking cigarettes was a cool thing to do and the harmful affects were not even thought about? Today when I see patients who are still smoking or have smoked for years I cringe at what their lungs might look like.

I recently treated a patient, now 75 years old for a condition known as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). He had been smoking for many years and over time the tobacco smoke had irritated his airways and destroyed the fibers in his lungs causing shortness of breath, wheezing, and tightness in his chest.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of COPD don't appear until significant lung damage has occurred and they usually worsen as time goes by. In order to find out if you have COPD there are a number of things your doctor will do.

First on the list is a physical exam along with listening to your lungs. Background information will be needed to learn about your past health issues and whether you were exposed to other things that could irritate your lungs. You will also be given a chest X-ray and other breathing tests to find out how well your lungs are functioning and rule out other problems that could cause the same symptoms.

People with COPD may suddenly have flare ups during which their symptoms get much worse. This is what is referred to as exacerbations and they can range from mild to life-threatening episodes. The longer you have COPD the worse the flare ups will be.

Because of the severity of this condition, it is very important to find out as soon as possible if you think you might have COPD. The earlier it is detected the more time you will have to take steps to slow down the damage to your lungs.

Airway Obstruction to Blame for COPD

COPD refers to obstruction in the lungs and is often a mix of two chronic lung diseases. People with COPD may have one or both of the following conditions:

  • Chronic bronchitis occurs when the airways that carry air to the lungs get inflamed and create mucus. It is characterized by an ongoing cough and the increased mucus production further narrows the bronchial tubes causing inflammation.
  • Emphysema is a lung disease that causes inflammation within the walls of the alveoli. In a healthy person, tiny air sacs in the lungs are like balloons that get bigger and smaller to move air through your lungs. When you have emphysema these air sacs are damaged and lose their stretch. The result is the feeling that you are short of breath.

The cause of COPD is almost always due to cigarette smoking over a long period of time. But other types of smoke can also be an irritant such as cigar smoke, secondhand smoke, pipe smoke, pollution and certain types of chemical fumes. Acid reflux disease (GERD) may also aggravate COPD and may even cause it in some people.

COPD is most commonly seen in people over 60 because it takes years for lung damage to start causing symptoms. A number of serious lung infections as a child can also increase your risk of developing COPD.

The most important thing to do is quit smoking to slow the progression of COPD. It doesn't matter how long or how much you smoke, you can help stop the damage to your lungs if you quit. I know it is hard to do but there are treatments that can help. Ask your doctor about medication and strategies to get you on a smoke free plan.

Healthy Precautions Can Help COPD

Living with COPD is not all doom and gloom. There are many things you can do at home to stay as healthy as you can. Always take the precaution of getting your flu and pneumonia shots every year. The reason for this is because people who have COPD are more susceptible to lung infections so you want to be on the safe side.

As with most diseases half the battle is learning to manage your symptoms and adjust your lifestyle to make your life more comfortable. Here are a few suggestions to make breathing easier:

  • Stay clear of anything that irritates your lungs, such as smoke, pollution, cold or hot air.
  • Use an air filter and air conditioner in your home.
  • Rest during the day.
  • Exercise to keep up your strength.
  • Take medication prescribed by your doctor.
  • Discuss maintenance and rescue medicines with your doctor to determine which is best for you.

Nutrition and Healthy Eating Habits Aid COPD

Healthy eating is one area that is critical if you have COPD. If you are overweight it puts stress on your heart and lungs. On the other hand, if you are underweight, you may have less energy and are less able to fight off infection. Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight is important to your overall well being. You can still enjoy eating by keeping a few things in mind.

  • Eat while sitting up straight to ease the pressure on your lungs.
  • Choose foods that are easy to prepare.
  • Eat in a relaxed atmosphere with friends and family.
  • Eat your main meal early so you will maintain energy throughout the day.
  • Include a favorite food in your meals.
  • Use medications that make breathing easier about 1 hour before eating.
  • Rest before eating if you are short of breath.
  • If you use oxygen, use it while eating because digestion requires more oxygen.
  • Eat six small meals a day so that your stomach is never extremely full. A full stomach makes breathing more difficult by pushing on your diaphragm.
  • Drink at the end of your meal to prevent you from filling up too quickly while you eat.
  • Eat and chew slowly to help with your breathing.
  • Drink a liquid breakfast or nutritional supplement if you have trouble breathing in the morning.

What you eat is just as important as how you eat.

  • Avoid foods that bloat the abdomen and make breathing difficult. These off limit foods include onions, cauliflower, broccoli, melons, peas, corn, cucumbers, cabbage, brussel sprouts, turnips, raw apples, and beans. Avoid fried and greasy foods that can cause gas.
  • Vary your diet by eating fruits and vegetables, dairy products, cereal and grains, and meats.
  • Limit your salt intake because sodium causes you to retain fluids.
  • Use herbs or look for reduced sodium foods instead.
  • Don't waste energy on foods with little nutritional value, such as snacks, candy, and soft drinks.

Living with COPD can be scary. It is never easy to feel short of breath or suffer with chronic coughing. But you can do yourself a big favor by removing what is causing your condition. If you are smoking now is the time to quit. Work with your doctor to find out what other things you can do to manage your illness and bring joy to your life.

Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Institute For Healthy Aging

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