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WHO CARES: Chronic Illness in America
WHO CARES: Chronic Illness in America

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Description: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to permanent lung damage, usually caused by smoking, in which there is an obstruction to air flow during exhalation. The two major diseases in this category are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms: Because smoking is overwhelmingly the cause of both diseases, they often develop together and frequently require similar treatments and approaches. Chronic bronchitis does not cause as much lung damage as emphysema. Both varieties of COPD cause low oxygen levels (hypoxia) and high levels of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia), which can lead to very severe and life-threatening conditions. In order to boost oxygen delivery, the body compensates in a number of ways: the rate of breathing is increased; more red blood cells are produced to increase the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity; the heart rate increases to pump more blood; and vessels in the lung constrict to force blood and oxygen through the circulatory system.

Number of Americans diagnosed: An estimated 14 million people in the U.S. suffer from COPD.

Long-term problems/treatments: Nearly half of those with COPD report that daily activities are limited. They have trouble walking upstairs or carrying even small packages. Breathing becomes hard work. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is progressive, although when patients stop smoking the disease often levels off.
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