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Simple treatments can add up to greater comfort for COPD sufferers

 (ARA) - Have you been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)? If so, you're not alone - according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) more than 12 million Americans are diagnosed with COPD and an additional 12 million probably have the disease and don't know it. People often go undiagnosed because they wrongly assume their shortness of breath or other symptoms are the result of asthma or age.

Although COPD is more common among men, COPD in women is on the rise. Doctors say this is likely because more women are smoking; long-term exposure to tobacco smoke is the leading cause of COPD. Women are also more likely to tell themselves - or be told by a health care professional - that they have asthma and so will not get tested for emphysema, chronic bronchitis or other lung diseases that fall under the category of COPD.

How to breathe easier

Although there is no known cure for COPD, there are simple things you can do to lessen your symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and improve your overall health so you can breathe easier.

 Most important: If you are a smoker, talk to your doctor about programs and products that will help you quit.

 In addition to quitting smoking, strategies you can use to help manage your disease include:

 * Breathing techniques, such as "belly breathing" and pursing your lips when exhaling, will help you relax and slow down your breathing. Ask your doctor about these techniques.

 * Physical activity will help improve your ability to breathe - and make you feel more positive in the process. Keep your movements simple and fluid. Although you may be afraid to overexert yourself and become short of breath, physical activity truly is one of the best ways you can help manage your COPD.

* Minimize your exposure to irritants such as air pollution and dust. Check the Weather Channel for air quality forecasts, and when necessary keep your windows closed and stay indoors.

* Coughing helps to get rid of the mucus that builds up in your lungs when you have COPD. Ask your doctor or respiratory therapist about techniques for making your coughing more productive.

 * Bronchodilators relax the muscles around your airways and make breathing easier. You usually take them using an inhaler that delivers the medication in a "puff" that you breathe in. If your COPD is mild, your doctor may recommend a short-acting bronchodilator, which lasts about four hours and you only take when needed. If your case is more advanced, your doctor may advise the regular use of long-acting bronchodilators, which last 12 hours or more.

* Corticosteroids, which are also inhaled, reduce airway inflammation and are used when your symptoms "exacerbate" (flare up) or worsen.

 * Nebulizer treatments deliver a mist of medication into your lungs. Ask your doctor about this type of treatment.

 * Medical devices are available that can help with COPD symptoms. One of the newest devices on the market is the Lung Flute, which uses low-frequency sound waves to stimulate your body's natural mucus-clearing system and loosen mucus that's deep in your lungs. You simply blow into the reusable handheld device with the same amount of breath you would use to blow out a candle. Devices like the Lung Flute can help maintain your daily bronchial hygiene and reduce the likelihood of respiratory infection.

* Flu shots can reduce your risk of the flu, which can cause serious problems when you have COPD.

* Oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehab and, in some cases, surgery may be recommended as the severity of your COPD symptoms progresses over time.

Other important considerations

The mucus that builds up in your lungs when you have COPD inhibits your ability to breathe and, if left untreated, becomes a breeding ground for infection, which can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis and other illnesses. If your COPD symptoms suddenly get worse or if it's harder than usual to catch your breath, it could mean you have a lung infection and should contact your doctor immediately.

 There are also emotional components of having and dealing with COPD. You may experience fear, anxiety, depression and stress about your disease and its implications. It can be helpful to seek support from friends and family, with whom you can talk openly about what you're feeling. You can also check with your doctor to see if there are local support groups for individuals, like yourself, who are coping with COPD.