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Health experts: Alabama has one of the highest COPD prevalence rates


National health experts are raising awareness about a lung disease that’s affecting Alabama. Data shows that the Yellowhammer State has one of the highest prevalence rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, in the country.

Over 12 million Americans are living with COPD, according to the American Lung Association. Experts say this lung disease is one that worsens over time.

Dr. Antonello Punturieri is a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute expert. He said the acronym is an umbrella term for two conditions.

“Emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Both conditions are usually present in the same patients but in different amounts,” he explained. There is no patient that is equal to another. With COPD, less air goes in and out of your lungs, [making] it very hard to breathe,” Punturieri said.

According to the National Health Organization, emphysema usually refers to destruction of the tiny air sacs at the end of the airways in the lungs. Chronic bronchitis refers to a chronic cough with the production of phlegm resulting from inflammation in the airway.

Experts say about 75 percent of COPD diagnosis start with smoke. The main contributors of the illness include smoking, having a history of cigarette smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke.

“A lot of people get diagnosed later in their life, and they aren’t smoking anymore,” Punturieri explained. “The problem with cigarette smoking, is that you start damaging your lung as soon as you start inhaling cigarette smoke.”

Punturieri said people who live in rural areas of Alabama are more than twice as likely to have COPD compared to people living in larger urban areas of the state.

“Cigarette smoking is twice as common in rural areas compared to cities,” he said. “And again, smoking is the main cause of COPD.”

Punturieri continued to say that exposure of workplace chemicals in industries such as mining, manufacturing, or farming can also contribute to COPD. That because worker can be exposed to lung irritants in these job fields. Although COPD can affect anyone, Punturieri said women can be more susceptible.

“Women have smaller lungs and smaller airways,” he explained. “They're more susceptible to COPD than men these days, and the data is telling us that there are more women dying of COPD these days than men.”

Medical care in rural areas also plays a role with COPD. Many rural areas require residents to travel for medical assistance since hospitals are located in larger areas.

Punturieri said that it is important to keep an eye on your body and lungs to make sure they are functioning properly throughout the years. Some of the most common symptoms of COPD are shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and in some instances, chest tightness.

“If you think you may have COPD, and you are experiencing these symptoms, the best thing to do is go and talk to your healthcare provider. Be very forward with them, and tell them about your history, smoking history, occupational history,” Punturieri said.

If someone is experiencing symptoms, they can ask a doctor to perform a spirometry test. This is a noninvasive breathing test that measures how fast and how much air goes in and out of the lungs. A treatment plan can be discussed with a healthcare provider if a loved one is diagnosed with COPD.

“There’s plenty of medication that can deal with the disease. But again, these are not curative, they just help at dealing with the disease,” Punturieri said.

He also noted that proper nutrition and exercising is essential in the treatment process. Another important step for a patient with COPD is to get the flu, COVID-19, RSV and pneumococcal vaccinations.

“People with COPD, in general, have a more depressed immune system. So, they don't respond as well as other people to infections,” Punturieri said.

He said noticing the warning signs early can save lives.

“I would say as soon as you experience any symptoms, don't hesitate. Go and talk with your with your healthcare provider. The sooner this step is taken, the sooner there'll be other possibilities for taking care of the disease,” Punturieri said.

More information on COPD can be found here.

Jolencia Jones is a graduate assistant at Alabama Public Radio. She joined APR in 2022. She graduated from The University of Alabama with a bachelor's degree in public relations. Over the past year, Jolencia has written a range of stories covering events throughout the state. When she's not working at APR, she's writing for 1956 Magazine and The Crimson White.

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