COPD is not the first thing people think about when smoking cigarettes.
Many people think about lung cancer when they talk about the health risks from smoking. Yes, lung cancer is a very important health concern from smoking but it only happens in a small percentage of smokers. To complicate matters, we see lung cancers in patients who have never smoked cigarettes. This seems to give some smokers a reason not to quit smoking.
Many reluctant smokers are saying, “Well, this person smoked all his life and did not get lung cancer, but the other person had lung cancer and he never smoked. It all depends on your luck. I am not quitting because if lung cancer is in my fate, it will happen anyway.”
When people talk about the health risks from smoking, they tend to ignore the more common consequence of smoking. It is called Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease or COPD. Unlike lung cancer, development of COPD in smokers is a question of “when” rather than “if.”
Almost all people who smoke cigarettes will develop COPD if they continue to smoke long enough. How long is too long depends on the individual person.
Some people are genetically more susceptible to have significant lung damage from smoking with just a few years of smoking, but other people may need more than 30 years to damage their lungs.
Although cancer sounds very scary, COPD killed 126,005 Americans in the year 2005 based on the latest CDC data. Unlike lung cancer, you are signing up to get COPD when you continue to smoke. You just don’t know how fast you will get it. The only time you do not get COPD from continued smoking is when you die from a heart attack or a cancer before you had a chance to develop COPD.
COPD results from damage to the small air tubes and air sacs inside your lungs. The damaged air tubes cause obstruction to air flow and lead to trapping of air inside your lungs. Eventually, your lungs slowly start to balloon up and behave like an overinflated balloon that has lost its elasticity. You will then have to work extra hard to ventilate your lungs, and you will start to huff and puff with minimal excursion.
You will also get phlegm trapped up in the obstructed air tubes and start to cough quite a lot. When the damage hits your air sacs, you will have problems getting enough oxygen in your body. You will get tired and lethargic. At that point, you will need supplemental oxygen to survive.
There is no treatment that can reverse these changes. If you stop smoking, you can prevent further damage to your failing lungs. Medications can only give you some tools to help maintain some residual lung function. They do not cure you. If you quit early enough, your lungs may recover to a certain degree, especially if you are still young and otherwise healthy.
The only way to avoid COPD is to avoid smoking. Now, the important question you need to ask smokers who want to continue smoking is, “Do you want to sign up to get COPD?”
Nabin Sapkota MD is board certified in internal medicine, a hospitalist with Inpatient Physician Associates of Columbus and a physician with the hospitalist program at Columbus Community Hospital. You can read about his new book project “Symptoms and Diagnosis” at http://symptomsdiagnosisbook.com/.