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Breathe Better: Improving Your Lung Health

November 4, 2015 10:00 AM with Dr. Stacy Raviv

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Difficulty breathing, chronic cough and inflammation can be attributed to a number of lung conditions, many of which can go undetected without diagnosis. These disorders can be genetic or results of unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking. Lung health is an important part of living a long and happy life, and discovering the truth behind these symptoms is essential; Stacy Raviv, MD, NorthShore Pulmonologist will be taking questions on symptoms of common lung conditions, and providing useful information on lifestyle changes you can make to improve the health of your lungs.

  Kathyn (Moderator) - 10:00 AM:
Our chat on improving your lung health is now open. Feel free to submit questions at any point during the chat.

  Matthew V. (Chicago, IL) - 10:06 AM:
Does heart health equate to better overall lung health? What steps can we do to improve our breathing habits that will lessen the chances of lung cancer?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Let's start with your second question: what steps can one do to lessen the chances of lung cancer? Of course, the most important is to limit inhalation of toxic substances. this means quitting smoking of any kind. For people between the ages of 55 and 75, who have a history of heavy smoking and recent smoking, many will qualify for lung cancer screening with low dose CT scans.

Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore) - 10:12 AM:
Matthew also asked a question about heart health and lung health. Unlike the heart, the lungs are not muscles that we can train, so in that respect, exercise does not improve lung function. However, for people who have lung disease, the common response is to move less and exercise less, in order to prevent symptoms of shortness of breath. For these people, muscles tend to atrophy for disuse. I always recommend exercise for the purpose of keeping muscles strong. This, in effect, makes the pulmonary patient more "fuel efficient," and less short of breath when moving. Another benifit of exercise, for people who have a number of lung diseases, is to improve airway clearance. Exercise that causes a person to breath heavily will help clear sputum, dust, and pathogens from the airways.

  Susan (Glenview, IL) - 10:13 AM:
Following an extensive Pulmonary Embolism 6 years ago, I find that I get bronchitis a couple of times a year. Do you see this with other PE patients and anything to suggest to help with preventing and treating this?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Generally, having had a pulmonary embolism should not make one susceptible to subsequent infections. However, there are several treatable conditions that can help to prevent episodes of bronchitis and severe bronchitis. For everyone, getting a yearly flu shot is very important. For your particular case, it might be helpful to ask your primary doctor if there are additional modifiable risk factors specific to you or if a pulmonary consultation might be helpful.

  Goldie (South Bend) - 10:15 AM:
I have copd at 39; My issue is releasing the air and getting medical staff to understand this and find the urgency I feel. I use 2 bronchial dilaters and prednisone and nebs and rescue inhaler. Is there anything else I can use or do to live a longer, more productive life with this condition?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
COPD at age 39 is somewhat unusual, though not unheard of. My first line of attack would be to make a clear diagnosis: do you really have COPD or is there an alternative diagnosis that might explain your symptoms and other test results. Assuming that you actually do have COPD: 1) you should quit smoking of all kinds, if you have not already. 2) you should be immunized against strep pneumoniae and seasonal influenza. 3) Inhalers should be used for symptoms and also for prevention of exacerbations. Most commonly used inhalers include inhaled steroids, long-acting beta agonists, and long-acting muscarinic agents. these may or may not be appropriate for you. 4) For patients with severe disease, who are at high risk for frequent exacerbations, daily azithromycin has been found to be helpful. 5) Finally, most patients with COPD have coexisting conditions, especially heart disease. Treating these other problems can make a big difference in overall health.

  Cindy (Chicago, IL) - 10:23 AM:
If someone with weak lungs is on oxygen 24/7, will this be beneficial? Can you tell me a little about how it works?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Oxygen, used for at least 18 hours daily, has been found to increase length of life in COPD patients who have resting oxygen saturations less than 88% on room air. Many patients, with various lung diseases who have low oxygen saturations, also feel better with oxygen. Oxygen probably helps in a number of ways. Our red blood cells pick up oxygen in the lungs and deliver that oxygen to the body. When saturations are less than about 88%, oxygen delivery can be impaired. Also, the blood vessels in our lungs respond to low oxygen levels by constricting blood flow. This has benifits, but in situations of chronic low oxygen levels, the situation can cause problems for heart function.

  Matthew V (Chicago, IL) - 10:29 AM:
In terms of having a system that allows the air to breathe freely through the pulmonary system, any exercise tips that could generate positive results for a healthier system?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Exercise is helpful for many body systems: muscles, cardiovascular health, glucose control, weight control... However, for people with normal lungs, breathing is a habit (which is a great thing!), not something that you should need to practice.

  Kenneth (Lake Forest, IL) - 10:32 AM:
Can you provide some tips for exercising with asthma? It’s the only time I find myself really struggling to breathe.
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Depending on how severe your asthma is and how frequently you experience symptoms, there are a number of strategies. One simple strategy is to use 2 puffs of albuterol 10 minutes prior to exercise. This works for a lot of people, though might not be a great stategy for someone who exercises very frequently. Another option is to use asthma controller medications daily. If asthma is properly controlled, you should not be limited in your ability to exercise.

  Maria (Joliet, IL) - 10:34 AM:
I have to clear my throat a lot during the day because of mucus build up – does this mean there’s something wrong with my lungs?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Most commonly, the sensation of mucous in the back of the throat is not due to a lung problem. Usually it is either from post-nasal drip or from gastroesophageal reflux (or both).

  James (Highland Park, IL) - 10:36 AM:
Does occasional smoking hurt the lungs? Sometimes, I will have one after a stressful week, but I don’t do it often.
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Most people talk about smoking and lung health, though damage to the cardiovascular system (causing heart attacks and strokes is more common than lung problems. Smoke exposure is also a risk factor for many different kinds of cancer. The extent of damage done to lungs from smoking is due to a combination of genetic predisposition and quantity of smoke exposure.

  Patty (Niles, IL) - 10:40 AM:
Is COPD genetic? I have a few family members who suffer from it, and I’m not sure if I should look for treatment or get tested somehow.
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Yes, there is a genetic predisposition for COPD. For most patients with COPD, this means that genes determine how likely they are to get COPD from smoking. There is also a specific genetic disease, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which predosposes patients to a somewhat rare form of COPD.

  Sharon (Rolling Meadows, IL) - 10:43 AM:
Are there any alternative treatment methods that help clear up the lungs?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
You might be referring to clearance of sputum, which is a problem for many patients with a range of lung diseases. I assume that by "alternative treatment methods," you mean non-medicinal treatments. The best way to clear sputum is exercise that makes a person breath heavily. For my patients with bronchiectasis, I recommend running up and down the stairs twice daily for 10 minutes. For patients unable to do this, I recommend jogging or brisk walking. For patients with bronchiectasis, there are additional mechanical ways to clear sputum. These include using an acapella device, a vibrating therapy vest, or having another person percuss the chest. I also prescribe hypertonic saline nebs (basically vaporized salty water).

  Daniel (Melrose Park, IL) - 10:48 AM:
Because I have asthma, I’ve always had to take more medicine when I get things like colds – does my chance for something like pneumonia or bronchitis increase because I have a lung condition already?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Some asthmatics have concomitant immune problems, but for most asthmatics, the problem is probably not one of getting more infections than the general public. Neither do they generally tend to get more pneumonias. Rather, when an asthmatic gets a simple cold or influenza infection, they also can develop an asthma attack. Many of my patients have described such illnesses as "going into my chest."

  Barb (Arlington Heights, IL) - 10:53 AM:
Can I get emphysema if I don't smoke? I'm getting older, and have a lot of friends with this problem, so I'm worried.
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
For most people in developed countries, like the United States, emphysema, or COPD, is caused by smoking. People also can get COPD from inhalation of dusts or chemicals in the workplace (usually factories). In other parts of the world, people get COPD from burning biofuels. Usually, this is in the form of cooking with a wood-burning or coal-burning stove.

  Joan (Downers Grove, IL) - 10:55 AM:
Is there anything I can do to prevent lung cancer? Like, does diet and exercise to keep the lungs healthy help, or is this something that can’t really be stopped?
Dr. Stacy Raviv (NorthShore)
Diets high in fruits and vegetables have been reported to decrease risk for lung cancer. Most lung cancers are related to tobacco smoke, though other inhalational agents, like asbestos, radon, and air pollution are also risk factors.

  Kathyn (Moderator) - 11:00 AM:
That will be the end of our chat. You can find out more information about lung conditions or get in touch with a pulmonologist like Dr. Raviv through our Pulmonary Medicine department.

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Thank you very much for your participation.