Never take a single breath for granted.

“COPD” may be a term with which you’re not overly familiar. But if you’ve heard of emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you’re more aware of COPD than you may have thought. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella name for a group of lung diseases, and emphysema (when air sacks in the lungs are damaged) and chronic bronchitis (when the lungs airways become inflamed) are the two most common conditions covered by the term.

Today, COPD ranks as the third-leading cause of death in the United States, affecting women nearly twice as often as men. While 13 million adults in the country have been diagnosed with this disease, it’s estimated that at least 12 million more have it and don’t realize it yet.

Here in western Pennsylvania, lung disease is particularly pervasive. That’s why it’s important to understand the symptoms and risks of COPD, and what you can do to help prevent it.

COPD Symptoms

According to our partners at the Mayo Clinic, warning signs of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • A chronic cough that produces clear, white, yellow or greenish mucus
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Fatigue
  • Unintentional weight loss (in later stages)
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet or legs.

From day to day, these symptoms can become worse — and this situation can persist for several days. Left untreated, COPD can lead to severe complications, including respiratory infections, heart problems, high blood pressure in the lung arteries (pulmonary hypertension), depression and lung cancer.

COPD Causes

There are several risk factors for developing COPD, but smoking is by far the most significant. In fact, cigarette smoking accounts for 85-90% of all COPD deaths. Other risk factors include:

  • Occupational exposure to dust and chemicals
  • Exposure to fumes from burning fuel
  • An uncommon genetic disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency

Diagnosing COPD

If you have any of the symptoms of COPD — particularly shortness of breath, constant coughing and a lot of mucus — your doctor will likely recommend a quick and simple spirometry test that shows how well your lungs are working by having you breathe through a mouthpiece. But Andrew Perez, IV, M.D., who specializes in pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine at St. Clair Hospital, says that a precise diagnosis has its challenges.

“While spirometry is a challenging test to perform properly, the respiratory therapists at St Clair follow established guidelines from the American Thoracic Society to determine validity of testing.” Dr. Perez says. He continues, “Spirometry and Pulmonary Function Tests have significant importance in allowing pulmonary physicians to establish the correct diagnosis, monitor for disease progression and even determine response to therapy.”

If the spirometry test detects diminished lung capacity, further tests may be necessary. More advanced diagnostic tools like those at St. Clair allow a pulmonologist to visualize and access very deep and hard-to-reach areas of the lung.

Treating COPD

While there is no outright cure for this disease, the good news is that new medications, oxygen therapy and smoking cessation can help to stop its progression. One of the most effective treatments is pulmonary rehab.

Pulmonary rehab helps patients improve their quality of life by building leg strength (which can actually reduce shortness of breath), improving stamina and learning techniques to conserve energy in their daily activities.

Preventing COPD

Fortunately, COPD can largely be avoided. Obviously, since the majority of cases are related to cigarette smoking, quitting is the best prevention. That’s easier said than done of course, so if you need help, your primary care doctor is a great resource who can help you quit for good. If you’re exposed to chemicals and dust on the job, talk to your supervisor about making sure that you have the right protective equipment. And finally, get your annual flu or pneumonia shot. These can help to prevent or minimize not only the illnesses themselves, but also the lung infections that could lead to COPD.

Preventing COPD

If you think you may be experiencing the symptoms of COPD, or if you’re already diagnosed as living with this disease, St. Clair Hospital is here to help. Our staff of highly credentialed pulmonologists offers proven expertise in diagnosing and treating lung diseases and breathing disorders, with a commitment to truly personalized care. And it’s all supported by the most advanced diagnostic and therapeutic technologies and leading-edge rehabilitation programs. To schedule an appointment, please call 412.942.4000.

To learn more about COPD and St. Clair’s advancements in pulmonary care, click here to read the Respiratory Health issue of HouseCall magazine or visit



Dr. Perez specializes in pulmonary diseases, critical care medicine and sleep medicine. He earned his medical degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at UPMC Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh where he also was Chief Resident. He completed his fellowship in pulmonary disease/critical care at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Perez is board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in critical care medicine, pulmonary disease and sleep medicine. He is the division chief for pulmonary at St Clair Hospital and medical director of respiratory services at St Clair. He practices with St. Clair Medical Services.

To contact Dr. Perez, please call 412.942.5620.