The statistics around COPD are alarming. Approximately 12 million individuals in the U.S. have COPD while just as many -- another 12 million -- remain undiagnosed. Veterans are three times more likely to develop COPD, and it is the fifth most prevalent disease amongst veterans.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD; however, you can treat the disease. Early detection and treatment of COPD are vital to slowing its progression.
It is key for all veterans to understand COPD, the symptoms and treatment, tips for managing it and more. If you think you may be at risk, please consult your physician.
What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases including chronic bronchitis, asthma and emphysema. These diseases share many of the same symptoms, including the inability to expel air from your lungs easily.
- Chronic bronchitis, known as a wet cough, is due to swelling of the bronchi in your lungs when excess mucus is produced. The excess mucus causes the bronchi to narrow, which makes it harder for you to breathe. You may develop a chronic cough to help you expel the mucus.
- Asthma is caused by an increase in the production of mucus that blocks the bronchial tubes and causes spasms. This thick mucus can cause difficult breathing, chest tightness, wheezing and coughing. It also requires you to work harder and breathe faster to get air into your body. Allergens, including smoke and smog, can cause an asthma attack.
- Emphysema is one of the most serious forms of COPD. It occurs when the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs break in succession causing many small air sacs to have holes in their walls. These holes in the walls cause the small alveoli to form one large air sac. The damage reduces the elasticity of your lung and makes it harder to breathe.
How COPD Can Start
Some people are prone to COPD due to genetics and how they grew up; others are at higher risks due to damaged lungs from cigarette smoke. Exposure to chemicals also can cause lung damage linked to COPD, which is why veterans are at increased risk.
- World War II and Cold War Veteran may have had exposure to ionized radiation and asbestos.
- Korean War Veteran may have had exposure to chemical warfare experiments.
- Vietnam Veteran may have had exposure to Agent Orange.
- Gulf War Veteran may have had exposure to chemical weapon depot demolition, uranium exposure, burning oil refineries, anthrax vaccines and severe sand and dust storms.
COPD and Agent Orange
In 2012, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gen. Eric Shinseki initiated a study into whether there was an increased incidence of respiratory diseases, like COPD, in veterans exposed to agent orange during the Vietnam War. While no conclusion has yet been made, researchers have found an association between hypertension risk and exposure to herbicides.
During the Vietnam War, agent orange was used by the U.S. as an herbicide to remove dense vegetation to help minimize surprise attacks by the enemy. Nearly 4,000 veterans who served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 were part of the 2012 study.
How COPD Affects the Body
COPD makes you work harder to breathe. Air gets trapped in the lungs, which prevents your lungs from filling completely the next time you inhale. Therefore, it’s harder to take a deep breath.
Over time, your lungs may become enlarged. This makes it more difficult for the lungs to expand fully in the chest. These problems can lead to shortness of breath (dyspnea), wheezing (hoarse, whistling breathing) and fatigue (feeling tired and worn out).
How COPD is treated
Treatment of COPD is based on your symptoms and the underlying cause of your COPD. A typical treatment plan includes:
- Treating your lungs. Medications will be prescribed to treat the lung problems contributing to your COPD. Some medications help relieve symptoms when you have them. Others are taken daily to control inflammation in the lungs.
- Oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy may be prescribed if tests show your blood contains too little oxygen. Oxygen may be used all the time, or it may be prescribed for use only during certain activities.
- Rehabilitation therapy. Your doctor may order an exercise and rehabilitation therapy program to help strengthen your diaphragm and skeletal muscles. You should work with a trained therapist to learn the techniques, how to use equipment, appropriate therapeutic activities/exercises and daily strategies to prevent breathlessness.
5 Tips For Living with COPD
- Stop smoking.
- Enroll in a stop-smoking program to increase your chances of success.
- Ask your doctor about medications or other methods to help you quit.
- Ask family members to quit smoking.
- Don't allow people to smoke in your home or when they are around you.
- Protect yourself from infection.
- Wash your hands often. Do your best to keep your hands away from your face. Most germs are spread from your hands to your mouth.
- Get a flu shot every year.
- Ask your doctor about a pneumonia vaccination.
- Avoid people who are coughing or sick.
- Avoid crowds in the winter when more people have colds and flu.
- Get enough sleep, exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet.
- Learn postural drainage and percussion, techniques that can help you cough up extra mucus. This extra mucus can trap germs in your lungs.
- Take medication exactly as directed.
- Don't skip doses.
- If you have been prescribed antibiotics, finish the course of treatment even if you feel better.
- Decrease stress.
- Stress can make COPD worse. When you begin to feel stressed, stop what you are doing. Breathe slowly, blowing out longer than in.
- De-stress by finding a quiet place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes and perform breathing exercises for several minutes.
- Continue medical follow-up
- Make and keep follow-up appointments with your physician or PCP.
Why MVH for COPD Treatment and Care
Maine Veterans’ Homes facilities in Augusta, Bangor, and Scarborough are skilled in the care of Veterans and their spouses with COPD, asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. We understand the needs of our honored Veterans and their higher rate of respiratory conditions due to their service exposure.
As a Veteran, you may be eligible for a VA stipend toward your room and board. We have a skilled nursing unit and offer state-of-the-art rehabilitation and therapy services that includes in-house respiratory, physical, occupational, speech and recreation therapies.
Treatment begins Day One with a goal to return you to your highest level of function for discharge.
Our knowledgeable and compassionate team at Maine Veterans' Homes will teach you about your diagnosis, medications, treatments and any other areas needed by you to ensure a safe discharge. This team may include a Care Transition Coordinator, nurse, physical therapist, occupational therapist, respiratory therapist, speech therapist, dietician, social worker and pharmacist who trained to care for persons with lung disease.
We welcome you and your family to visit any one or all of our six Maine Veterans’ Homes locations, or to contact us for any additional resources you may need. Contact Maine Veterans’ Homes online or give us a call at 800-278-9494.