COPD is nothing to laugh at considering the risk

Tracy Woolrich's picture

November is National COPD Awareness Month. Seeing that COPD is on the rise, it is important to recognize what the symptoms are, what the risk factors may be and what the current research is saying about it. Recent observations actually suggest that a sense of humor may help reduce symptoms.

Humor is the best medicine. Certainly Patch Adams, MD from the Gesundheit Institute would tell you that. It’s been well known that a sense of humor can bring about an enhanced quality of life. This is especially important for patients that suffer from chronic illness. Studies have proven this. Research out of Ohio State University showed that patients with COPD who exhibited a healthy level of humor showed less anxiety and depression. Yet at the same time, the act of laughter itself caused an increase in shortness of breath among some participants.

The study evaluated humor and laughter in patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). It showed a strong f association between a good sense of humor and general well-being. The outcomes suggested that the higher the sense of humor score, the fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. In addition there was a correlation between humor and fewer days absent from work due to respiratory ailments.

When it came to laughter the results showed an opposite effect. The pulmonary function tests completed of those participants that laughed during the comedy video, showed reduced lung function. Kim Lebowitz Feingold, lead author of the study, feels it is due to the amount of air in the lungs during the act of laughter.

“During laughter, we’re expiring more air than we’re inhaling so it’s a potential way of ridding our lungs of stale air. COPD is characterized by this increased air trapping, so our hypothesis was that laughter would reduce some of that trapped air,” Lebowitz Feingold said. “But in hindsight, the findings make sense. With laughter, people also are introducing an increased amount of air into their lungs compared with a normal breath. These patients have trouble getting the air out, so they are taking in more air with laughter, but they cannot easily expire that air, leaving them with increased trapped air following laughter.”

What is COPD
The number of people who have COPD is on the rise. There are more than 12 million people living with it currently with another estimated 12 million that have yet to be diagnosed. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the 3rd leading cause of death with nearly 140,000 deaths yearly. It is only surpassed by heart disease and cancer. With statistics like this, it is important to know your risk factors, the signs and how to prevent such a disabling disease.

Many people who are at risk for developing COPD are unaware of their risk factors or believe they are unable to change their behaviors or environment. Here are the three main risk factors according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.


Smoking is the number one cause of COPD. It is also one of the factors you can control. COPD most often occurs in individuals over the age of 40 who have smoked for many years. Smoking accounts for as many as 9 out of 10 COPD related deaths. However, as many as 1 out of 6 individuals with COPD have never smoked. That leads us to the next risk which is environmental exposures.

Environmental Exposure
COPD can also occur in people who have had long-term exposure to irritants like chemicals or fumes in the workplace. Jobs like coal miners, cotton fiber workers and concrete manufacturers are just a few occupations that are at a higher risk. Second hand smoke and air pollution can also contribute to COPD. Yet there are some that have never smoked and never been exposed to any irritants. This smaller population suffers from genetic predisposition.

Genetic Factors
Some unfortunate individuals develop COPD due to a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT, deficiency. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 Americans have it. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein that is produced by the liver. Its function is to protect the liver and lungs. It is caused by a genetic defect and is most common among Europeans and North Americans of European descent. In these individuals, COPD often starts before age 40. Treatment includes receiving the protein on a weekly basis by infusion.

There is nothing you can do to change your gene pool. You can however reduce your environmental exposure and smoking habits. Think you can’t? Think again. Statistics don’t lie.
Joseph Stalin was quoted as saying “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Well COPD International has compiled some sobering statistics for you. These numbers were from 2000-2002. I seriously doubt if the numbers have improved in the past decade.

  • Men are 7 times more likely to be diagnosed with COPD then women.
  • Prevalence in women with COPD is steadily rising. It kills more women than breast cancer and diabetes COMBINED.
  • In the year 2000, nearly 1.5 million emergency room visits by adults 25 and older were due to COPD.
  • There were more emergency room visits for COPD made by adult females than adult males (898,000 vs. 651,000).
  • In 2000, there were nearly 726,000 hospitalizations for COPD.
  • Of those hospitalizations, more females than males were hospitalized for COPD (404,000 vs. 322,000).
  • The total estimated cost of COPD in 2002 was estimated at over $32 billion.

So what exactly are the symptoms of COPD? As with any disease, symptoms will vary from person to person, Symptoms may get worse as you age. This is especially true if you do not reduce your risk factors.

COPD Symptoms
As the first word of COPD indicates, the symptoms are chronic and unfortunately sometimes disabling. Many individuals with it avoid beloved activities all together due to the shortness of breath that they experience.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Constant coughing. This is sometimes referred to as a smokers cough
  • Not being able to take a deep breath without coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Excess mucous production
  • Shortness of breath while doing activities simple activities.

COPD is progressive and can worsen over time. It may become so severe that even activities of daily living such as getting dressed or grooming may become too difficult.

Take home message
Having COPD means you will need to adjust your lifestyle. It does not mean you have to stop living. Remember to take your medication as prescribed. Some medication is meant to be taken routinely and is made to prevent symptoms not just treat them. Keep all of your doctor appointments. Consider joining a support group. Expand your circle of friends and learn to ask for help when you need it.