Better Breathing

Preventing and Treating COPD

By Shanna Hogan 

The event occurred 12 years ago, but the memory of it still causes Doug Salter to wince. He had come down with a nasty cold and sore throat and coughed up blood during a coughing fit. 

“The first thing that goes through my mind as an ex-smoker is (that) it finally caught up with me,” Doug, 84, says. “I’ve got lung cancer.”

After a visit to an emergency room, where a CAT scan was performed, Doug saw his longtime pulmonologist, Dr. Jeffrey Ronn, of the Sunrise Medical Center in Surprise. He was relieved to learn he had a bacterial infection, which Dr. Ronn treated with a shot. 

But his lung issues were far from over. The retired California Highway Patrolman was diagnosed with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a long-term lung condition, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Symptoms include a persistent cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. It affects millions of people and is the third leading cause of death from disease-related illnesses in the United States, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). 

“We get COPD by doing many things that are ill-advised, but the No. 1 cause is smoking,” says Dr. Ronn, who has specialized in pulmonology and critical care medicine for more than four decades. Indeed, the ALA states that approximately 85 to 90 percent of COPD cases are caused by smoking.

Spotting the Signs

While COPD can occur at any age, it is a progressive disease that worsens over time. 

 “There’s a deterioration of the lungs even if you don’t smoke. Every year our lungs decline, just like our bones get more brittle as we get older,” Dr. Ronn says. 

He recommends that current or former smokers, as well as those with shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing or fatigue, see a pulmonologist. “We can do a pulmonary function test, check their oxygen and order a CT scan of their chest to evaluate their lungs and determine the best treatment,” says Dr. Ronn, who has served patients, the local hospitals and Sun Health for more than 35 years.

Breathing Better

While the disease can be deadly, COPD is often preventable and treatable. Medications such as inhalers, nebulizers, steroids and antibiotics, as well as lifestyle changes, can improve lung function. 

“It involves taking better care of your health, not smoking and trying to prevent exacerbation,” Dr. Ronn says. An exacerbation of COPD is a sudden worsening of symptoms, which typically lasts several days. It can be triggered by an infection or environmental causes. 

Dr. Ronn prescribed CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) therapy for Doug, a hose and mask device that uses pressurized air to improve breathing while sleeping. After a bout with pneumonia, he was put on supplemental oxygen for almost two months.

But the biggest lifestyle change came on Doug’s 50th birthday when he decided once and for all to quit smoking. 

“I was a heavy smoker and had been for years,” he says. “And if I hadn’t quit, I can assure you I would have died a long time ago.” 

Doug is breathing easier these days and that’s given him more lung power to sing classic country songs in his rich bass voice, an activity he thoroughly enjoys and that’s benefited his health. He and his wife Gayle often sing at a local restaurant’s karaoke night and they have a karaoke system at home. “Singing is one of the best medicines,” Doug says.

Ways to improve your breathing if you have COPD 

  • See a pulmonologist who can evaluate your condition and recommend treatment.  
  • Quit smoking.
  • Avoid smoky or dusty places.
  • Exercise and maintain a healthy weight. 
  • Check daily weather reports and avoid going outdoors on polluted days.
  • Take prescribed medications as directed. 
  • Get healthy sleep. 
  • Drink plenty of water, which can thin mucus. 
  • Attend pulmonary rehabilitation.
  • Do breathing exercises. 
  • Get regular chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests with a doctor.

Above: Dr. Jeffrey Ronn listens to Peter Vergalla’s lungs. Photo by John Tucker.

 Join pulmonologist Jeffrey Ronn, MD, as he presents
“COPD: What’s New?,” 9:30 to 11 a.m., Wednesday, April 24.

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