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Assessing Your Risk for COPD

COPD Self-Assessment Tool

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Updated May 15, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The Centers for Disease Control has identified COPD as the third leading cause of death in this country behind only heart disease and cancer. It is the only leading cause of death that is rising every year. Of growing importance is the ability to detect the disease in its earliest stages, as earlier COPD diagnosis leads to earlier COPD treatment and better chances for survival.

The following list includes 6 questions to ask yourself to assess your risk for COPD. The questionnaire is only the first step in obtaining an accurate diagnosis and is not meant to replace specific medical advice from a qualified health care professional. Once you answer the questions, you can then discuss the results with your health care provider for further evaluation.

Assess Your Risk for COPD

1. Are you 40 years of age of older?

In general, the older you are the greater your risk for COPD. Most people don't get diagnosed until they reach the fifth or sixth decade of life. However, there is a genetic form of COPD caused by Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency whereby a person can be diagnosed at a much younger age.

2. Have you been exposed to airway irritants such as cigarette smoke or other noxious stimuli?

Although cigarette smoking is the primary cause of COPD, environmental and occupational exposure to other types of airway irritants also places you at risk. A detailed history of your exposure to noxious stimuli such as tobacco smoke, air pollution and workplace irritants is an important part of any risk assessment associated with COPD.

3. Do you get short of breath more than other people in your age group?

Dyspnea, or shortness of breath, is the hallmark symptom of COPD and is generally the most commonly reported symptom. In COPD, dyspnea can be defined as the sensation of having the urge to breathe. It is a direct result of lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. If your dyspnea is persistent, has gotten worse over time and gets more pronounced when you exert yourself, it may be associated with COPD and your doctor should be notified.

4. Do you cough throughout the day on most days?

Coughing is a defense mechanism developed by the body in an attempt to keep the airways free of mucus or foreign debris. People with COPD often develop a chronic cough; in fact, it is one of the most common reasons that they see their doctor. A chronic cough is long-term, persistent and does not respond well to medical treatment. It may be intermittent and non-productive, meaning it does not produce mucus. It may be caused by a lung infection or from airway irritants such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. A chronic cough may, or may not be, indicative of a serious, underlying lung condition like COPD, and warrants further investigation from your healthcare provider.

5. Do you cough up sputum (mucus or phlegm) from your lungs most days?

Sputum is a substance produced by the lungs that is normally expelled by coughing or clearing of the throat. People with COPD often produce more sputum than the average, healthy person but they may have great difficulty expelling it from their lungs. When mucus collects in the airways and lungs, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria to multiply. This often leads to lung infection, one of the primary causes of COPD exacerbation. Any amount of chronic mucus production may be indicative of COPD.

6. Does anyone in your family have COPD?

A family history of COPD or other respiratory ailments places you at greater risk for COPD. A small percentage of people also have a genetic form of emphysema that is caused by the lack of the protective protein Alpha-1-antitrypsin, normally produced by the liver. This condition can be easily diagnosed with a blood test. Your family history is important to discuss with your doctor to help form, or rule out, an accurate diagnosis of COPD.

Results

If you answered yes to one or two of these questions and are having breathing problems, make an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss the possible causes for your symptoms.

If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, your breathing problems may be related to COPD. The more "yes" answers, the more likely it is that COPD is behind your symptoms. Don't wait! Make an appointment with your healthcare provider today to talk about your symptoms and undergo a simple breathing test called spirometry that will help your healthcare provider reach an accurate diagnosis.

For more information about COPD risk factors, read:

Common and Not-So- Common Risk Factors for COPD

Sources:

The Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease. Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Updated 2011.

Martinez, F. J., Raczek, A. E., Seifer, F. D., Conoscenti, C. S., Curtice, T. G. & D'Eletto, T., et al. Development and Initial Validation of a Self-Scored COPD Population Screener Questionnaire. Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. 5:2, 85-95. April 2008.

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