Question: I have COPD, but I never smoke. I was in Iraq in 2009 and exposed to a lot of smoke. Could this have caused my lung problem, and what should I take to manage it?
Dr. Hibberd’s answer:
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a spectrum of lung disorders that can lead to scarring and decreased lung function. It can be caused by untreated asthma, toxic inhalation (including smoke exposure and smoking), genetic predisposition, enzyme deficiency (as in alpha one anti-trypsin deficiency or surfactant production disorders), other chronic pulmonary disorders (such as cystic fibrosis), trauma, or infection.
See your family physician for a lung evaluation, and if there is evidence to support an occupational exposure in Iraq, you may be entitled to benefits and assistance from the VA. Your doctor may recommend using an inhaler on a regular or as-needed basis, but of course this will depend on the severity of your COPD.
For most COPD patients, treatment can help with breathing problems, but when scarring sets in it can affect lung capacity and, in worse-case scenarios, require supplemental oxygen or even a lung transplant.
The problem here is that many veterans exposed in the war were also heavy smokers or lived in areas or households with smokers, and this increases the risk for COPD.
We have long warned of the dangers of household and occupational smoke exposure. Parents should know that secondhand smoke can be as harmful as smoking for all occupants of a household, especially children. This is also true in occupational settings, such as restaurants and hotels.
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