Today, approximately 15 million Americans suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, while 12 million others remain undiagnosed. The condition is currently the fourth cause of death throughout the country. There are two types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The former entails the weakening of the air sacs of the lungs (alveoli), whereas the latter involves the inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which results in a persistent cough and increased mucus production. Both types of COPD decrease breathing capacity to a great extent. A series of factors can lead to the deterioration of the alveoli and the bronchial tubes, such as smoking, the rare genetic disorder known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, the inhalation of fumes released by burning fuel, as well as occupational asbestos exposure.
Our lungs are unable to expel asbestos fibers. Thereby, once they reach the inside of the organs, asbestos fibers will embed themselves in tissue, gradually irritating the area in question. Within 10 to 50 years, the damage inflicted by asbestos to the lungs may result in COPD, which often implies a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It is worthy of note that suffering from COPD as a consequence of workplace asbestos exposure makes you substantially more prone to developing malignant diseases such as lung cancer or pleural mesothelioma over the years.
The first symptom of COPD is usually a lingering, productive cough. In severe cases, blood can be found in the sputum expelled by the person who suffers from this condition. Shortness of breath is also common in the early phases of COPD. According to a 2015 survey, these are the U.S. states with the largest number of COPD patients:
- West Virginia – 12%
- Kentucky – 11.2%
- Alabama – 9.9%
- Arkansas – 9.1%
- Tennessee – 8.9%
- Oklahoma – 8.2%
- Missouri – 7.9%
- Indiana – 7.4%
- Mississippi – 7.2%
Because COPD is insidious and symptoms are rarely experienced by people until it reaches advanced phases, we strongly advise individuals with a history of asbestos exposure – particularly smokers – to undergo a biannual medical examination, which will help prevent late detection in the unfortunate event the condition has developed. The most effective tests for detecting COPD include spirometry (a pulmonary function test which helps your specialist observe the volume and flow of air), X-rays, and computed tomography (CT scans). Blood tests may also be ordered to measure oxygen levels.
Although there is no treatment per se for COPD at the moment, the condition can be successfully kept under control with regular use of medication such as bronchodilators, anti-inflammatory medication, and steroids. In severe cases, oxygen therapy or machine-assisted respiratory therapy may be recommended.