Keeping your lungs healthy is an important part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Your respiratory system, which includes the nose, throat, windpipe (trachea) and lungs, brings air into the body when you breathe. In the lungs, the oxygen from each breath is transferred to the bloodstream and sent to all the body’s cells as life-sustaining fuel. Your lungs are part of a group of organs and tissues called the respiratory system that all work together to help you breathe. The main job of the respiratory system is to move fresh air into and get waste gases out of the body.

Oxygen, a basic gas, is needed by every cell in your body in order to live. The air that comes into the body through the lungs contains oxygen and other gases. In the lungs, the oxygen is moved into the bloodstream and carried through the body. At each cell in the body, the oxygen cells are exchanged for waste gas called carbon dioxide. The bloodstream then carries this waste gas back to the lungs where the waste gas is removed from the blood stream and then exhaled from the body. This vital process, called gas exchange, is performed automatically by the lungs and respiratory system. In addition to gas exchange, the respiratory system performs other roles important to breathing, including:

  • Bringing air to the proper body temperature
  • Moisturizing the inhaled air to the right humidity
  • Protecting the body from harmful substances by coughing, sneezing, filtering or swallowing them.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) includes two major diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD has been the third leading cause of death in West Virginia and the fourth leading cause of death in the US for most of the past 10 years. West Virginia’s mortality rates for COPD exceed the national rates for both men and women and among all age groups. The main reasons for West Virginia's grim statistics are:

Smoking: One?half of West Virginia adults are either current or former smokers, a rate that's among the very highest in the nation. Tobacco smoking accounts for about 80 percent of bronchitis and emphysema cases. Cigarette smokers are 10 times more likely to die from these diseases than non smokers. A direct association between secondhand smoke and lower respiratory disease has been documented by the Environmental Protection Agency and about 75 percent of middle school and high school students report exposure to secondhand smoke throughout in the state.

Other risk factors: The relationship between coal mining and obstructive lung disease has long been recognized. The exposure to vapors, gases, dust or fumes on the job can also cause COPD independently of cigarette smoking and increase the risk and severity of disease among smokers is also well documented. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found COPD to occur more frequently in certain other industries, including rubber, plastic and leather manufacturing, utilities, and office building services (laborers, cleaners, material handlers and maintenance workers).

Because people in West Virginia and the Tri-State community are more likely to experience lung problems and lung disease, Cabell Huntington Hospital, the Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine have established several programs for diagnosing and treating lung disease.

How COPD affects your lungs

Chronic Bronchitis. The Merck Manual of Geriatrics defines chronic bronchitis as “characterized by a productive cough occurring most days of the month for at least three months of the year for two consecutive years.” In chronic bronchitis, there is persistent inflammation and eventual scarring of the bronchial tubes. The inflammation causes excessive production of mucus and swelling of the bronchial walls. The chief cause of chronic bronchitis, however, is cigarette smoking, including exposure to secondhand smoke. Chronic bronchitis is often not treated properly until it has reached an advanced stage because sufferers do not realize its seriousness until their lungs have already been damaged. By this time, the lining of the bronchial tubes has thickened due to the persistent inflammation, excess mucus is constantly being produced, there is much coughing, airflow is increasingly hampered, and respiratory infections occur with greater frequency due to the ideal breeding conditions of the bronchi.  Overall, the 10?year mortality rate following a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis is about 50 percent.

Emphysema. Emphysema is the abnormal, permanent enlargement of the air spaces at the ends of the bronchioles, accompanied by the destruction of their walls. Most emphysema is caused by smoking. ATT, a protein produced by the liver, can be deactivated by cigarette smoke and affect the elasticity and functioning of the lungs, leading to the gradual development of emphysema. The initial symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath (dyspnea).  A cough might also be present, as chronic bronchitis often precedes emphysema. As the disease progresses, even a short walk can result in difficulty in breathing.

What's at stake: Your quality of life with COPD

Millions of Americans suffer from COPD so severely that the illness interferes with their daily activities, and more than half report that their COPD limits their ability to work. Nearly half report that they get short of breath while doing light housework or washing and dressing. Nearly one-third of COPD sufferers get short of breath while talking. About 25 percent of COPD patients report difficulty breathing even when sitting down or lying still and describe themselves as invalids. About half of COPD sufferers said their disease limited their social activities and affected their family activities. The psychological effect of COPD on patients was devastating. Over half of those surveyed said they felt panic when they could not get their breath or felt they were not in control of their breathing. Two?thirds said they expected their condition to get worse. Overall, the median survival rate for patients who have lost two-thirds of their lung function is 10 years.


The American Lung Association