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COPD in women is on the rise

Dr. Neil Ettinger, St. Luke's Hospital

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the most common lung diseases and is the third leading cause of death in the United States. For several years now, women have outpaced men in terms of deaths related to the disease. COPD actually includes two types of conditions: chronic bronchitis, a chronic cough accompanied by mucus formation, and emphysema, a respiratory disease characterized by the destruction of air sacs and trapping of air in the lungs. In many cases, those with COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Smoking is one of the leading risk factors for COPD, with approximately 90 percent of deaths caused by smoking. In fact, female smokers are approximately 13 times more likely to die from COPD than women who have never smoked. Other risk factors for COPD include air pollution, secondhand smoke, dusts, chemicals, genetics, childhood respiratory infections and socioeconomic factors.

A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that the incidence of COPD in women is on the rise. It found that more than six percent of women now have the disease, while four percent of men suffer from it. Researchers believe the reason for the increase in women who have COPD is due to the number of women who started smoking in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although there is no cure for COPD, there are treatment options to help once it is diagnosed. The diagnosis is often made with a chest x-ray and pulmonary function tests and when symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough and multiple respiratory infections are present. Treatment can help ease or relieve symptoms. They include bronchodilators to open the airways, inhaled steroids, oral anti-inflammatory medications, oxygen, nebulized medications and, in some cases, lung transplantation or volume reduction surgery.

People with COPD may also participate in pulmonary rehabilitation to help improve their endurance and stay active. Exercise can help to maintain or even build strength, but they should consult with their doctors or therapists before beginning any activity. Of course, smoking cessation is the key to stabilizing the disease. Clinical trials help identify new medications for the treatment of COPD and are available as an option for most patients.     

Dr. Neil Ettinger is a pulmonologist at St. Luke's Hospital. To learn more about COPD or to participate in a COPD study, call 314-439-LUNG (5864).

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 26, 2012.