COPD and smoking
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung disease that block airflow, making it difficult to breath. According to the American Lung Association, more than 7 million women in the United States are living with a diagnosis of COPD, and many don’t even realize they have the condition.
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Dr. MeiLan Han, MS, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Michigan and a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told Healthline; “Things like breast cancer get a lot of attention, but we have many more women die of COPD yearly,”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, smoking was mainly limited to men and frowned upon in women.
In the 1920s, American tobacco companies started to market their products more to women. A growing number of women began to smoke.
By 1955, about a quarter of women smoked cigarettes, likened to more than half of men. By 1995, the gap had significantly narrowed after smoking rates declined drastically in men but not in women.
There is some evidence that suggests women may actually be more vulnerable to the effects of tobacco smoke. For each cigarette smoked, the amount of function loss appears to be greater for women than men. One theory is that it’s because the lungs of women are smaller.
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“But there may be a whole host of other biologic and genetic factors that also drive how a woman’s body reacts to and metabolizes cigarette smoke differently,” Han said.
Exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, outdoor air pollution, and toxic fumes at home or work can also increase a person’s risk of developing COPD and other lung-related disease.
Getting a COPD diagnosis can be challenging for women
Women may also face gender barriers in getting diagnosis and treatment for COPD.
According to a recent review of the research literature, underdiagnosis of COPD might be more common in women than men.
The authors also concluded that women are less likely to receive spirometry, a lung function test that can help doctors diagnose COPD.
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“They really cannot tell you [if you have COPD] until they’ve done the appropriate testing, which is a breathing test called spirometry,” Han added.
To help improve rates of diagnosis of COPD, it’s important to educate both physicians and the general public, Han suggested.
“People tend to think a little shortness of breath when you get older is normal, and that shouldn’t be the supposition,” she said.
“Then when patients go in to talk to their physicians, their physicians often don’t order appropriate testing. So I think the patient needs to be armed with some knowledge. I think patients need to know that this test exists and to ask for it,” Han said