December 18, 2018

Lung Disease in America

More than 25 million people in the U.S. have a lung disease, with lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) being two of the most common. Nicole Garst, APRN at the pulmonology clinic at The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus, is giving us in depth information about the two, the risk factors for both and how they would be treated.

“Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.,” said Garst. “Lung cancer claims more lives each year than colon, prostate, ovarian and breast cancer combined. The risk of developing lung cancer is exponentially increased by smoking cigarettes. Determining that risk is based on how many years you smoked and how many cigarettes you smoked each day during that time.”

Symptoms of lung cancer can include more than just respiratory issues. “A new cough that doesn’t go away, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, chest pains, hoarseness, unintentional weight loss, bone pain and headaches can all be symptoms of lung cancer,” said Garst. “If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you need to be checked by a doctor right away.”

Smoking cigarettes is the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer, but others can include exposure to second-hand smoke and irritants such as radon, asbestos and other carcinogens. As with other cancers, a family history of lung cancer is also a risk factor.

When it comes to decreasing your risk of developing lung cancer, the number one thing is to not smoke cigarettes. “If you don’t currently smoke, don’t start,” said Garst. “Quitting smoking is not easy for people. It’s one of those things that is much easier said than done. Other things you can do to help decrease your risk is to avoid any type of carcinogens at work, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.”

There are many benefits that your body will experience upon kicking your smoking habit.

- 20 minutes after quitting, your blood pressure, heart rate and temperature in your hands and feet will return to normal

- 12 hours after quitting, your blood oxygen levels will increase to a normal level

- 48 hours after quitting, your sense of smell and taste will be at a normal level

- 72 hours after quitting, your entire body will be 100 percent nicotine-free, with breathing becoming easier and lung functionality improving

- Risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke will drop to less than half of that of a smoker

Treatment for lung cancer will be determined after proper testing has taken place. “In the pulmonary clinic, we will order the appropriate pulmonary test so we can figure out what is going on,” said Garst. “Oftentimes, we will also order chest x-rays or a CT scan of the chest so we can take a look at the lungs. If we do see any type of infections, modules or masses in the lungs, we will then determine what treatment option would be best for you.”

COPD, one of the most common lung diseases other than lung cancer, blocks airflow and makes it difficult for people to breathe. “In the U.S., COPD affects more than three million people and is the third leading cause of death,” said Garst.

There are two types of COPD:

1. Chronic bronchitis, which involves the chronic cough with mucus production.

2. Emphysema, which causes damage to the lungs over time.

Symptoms of COPD are chronic cough, shortness of breath while performing every day activities, frequent respiratory infections, fatigue, excessive mucus production and wheezing.

Risk factors associated with COPD can vary, but smoking cigarettes is the leader. “Approximately 85-90 percent of people with COPD develop it as a result of cigarette smoking,” said Garst. “COPD can also be caused by exposure to other irritants like air pollution, second-hand smoke, dust, fumes and chemicals. Other than cigarettes and irritants, COPD can also develop through a genetic issue that is caused by a protein deficiency called alpha 1 antitrypsin.”

COPD diagnosis is generally done through a pulmonary function test. “This test will give us information on how well the lungs are functioning,” said Garst. “We will be able to see how much air you can blow in one breath, how well your lungs are able to expand and contrast and if there’s any type of resistance. We also look at how well the lungs are able to exchange the gases of oxygen and carbon monoxide. Based on the results from the pulmonary function test, we can see if you do in fact have COPD and how severe it is.”

Treatment for COPD involves a variety of inhalers, as well as nebulized medications. “These types of medications can decrease inflammation, as well as open up the airways so you are able to continuously get air into your lungs,” said Garst. “They will also help with the cough and mucus production. When we look at treating COPD, we obviously want to treat your symptoms, but we also want to preserve your lung function over time. By using these medications, we are able to achieve both.”

The pulmonology clinic at The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus offers medical assistance with quitting tobacco use. Our tobacco treatment specialist provides counseling, medical support and nicotine replacement therapies to help with the process. If you are experiencing respiratory issues or would like to quit tobacco use, call 785-295-5310 to make an appointment at the pulmonology clinic.

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