Struggling to Breathe As You Get Older? Ask Your Doctor About Pulmonary Testing

We’ve all heard about the aches and pains of aging such as stiff joints or a sore back. Many people also believe getting out of breath more easily is a natural part of advancing age. However, if you’ve found yourself struggling to catch your breath after walking a short distance, it may be a sign of a pulmonary disease such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing is not a normal part of aging, but rather an indication of an underlying condition. These symptoms should be evaluated by a primary care physician or a pulmonologist. Pulmonologists are doctors who have received special training in diseases and disorders of the lungs and respiratory system.

While there are a wide range of pulmonary diseases, COPD tends to be more prevalent in aging patients. The National Institute of Health estimates that 10 percent of patients over the age of 75 have COPD.

COPD includes a group of lung disorders that cause blocked airways. The most common forms are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

At first, COPD may cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, symptoms usually become more severe. Common signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • An ongoing cough or a cough that produces a lot of mucus (often called “smoker’s cough”)
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
  • Chest tightness

Effective therapy is available to help COPD patients control symptoms and reduce the risk of complications. Therapy can also improve the ability to lead an active life.

Before treatment of COPD, many older patients report the need to limit activities they enjoy, such as golf, gardening, or actively playing with grandchildren. With a care plan developed by a physician and proper medication management, these patients are often able to gradually increase activity levels.

The most essential step in any treatment plan for COPD is to stop all smoking. Talk to your doctor about nicotine replacement products and medications that might help, as well as how to handle relapses. It’s also a good idea to avoid secondhand smoke exposure whenever possible.

Doctors use several kinds of medications to treat the symptoms and complications of COPD. A physician may also recommend oxygen therapy and a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

Talking With Your Doctor

If you experience breathlessness, a tight chest, or a chronic cough, talk to your primary care physician. Your doctor may perform testing or refer you to a pulmonologist for diagnosis and treatment.

Should you need specialized care, the pulmonary team at LeBauer can help. Our staff includes 14 pulmonologists at several locations in the Triad, including Burlington, Greensboro, and High Point. For more information about the pulmonary disorders we treat, visit our pulmonary care page.

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