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Coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing — many people have symptoms like these for a variety of reasons, ranging from common colds to smoke inhalation to running. While unpleasant, they’re usually not serious. But for many Americans, they’re the result of medical conditions that are chronic, dangerous and sometimes fatal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1-in-12 Americans has asthma, a lung disease that causes repeated episodes of breathlessness, tightness of the chest and coughing at night and in the morning. This includes 18.7 million noninstitutionalized adults, or 8.2% of that population. Meanwhile, 7 million children, or 9.4%, have the disease. The disease is ranked among the most common in children, with attacks usually triggered by something that bothers the patient’s lungs. During an attack, the airways that lead to the lungs swell and tighten, thus blocking air from entering and causing fits of coughing and chest tightness, while mucus can exacerbate the problem. Common triggers for asthma attacks include secondhand smoke, mold, outdoor air pollution, dust mites, pet allergies and even some foods.
In 2007, according to the CDC, there were about 17 million visits to physicians’ offices, hospital outpatient wards and emergency rooms in which asthma was listed as the primary diagnosis. In 2009, there were 479,000 hospital stays that resulted from the disease, with patients staying in the hospital for an average of more than four days. That year, the disease resulted in 3,388 deaths, or 1.1 deaths per 100,000 people.
Another disease that causes symptoms often similar to asthma is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which includes the diseases of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Most COPD in the United States results from smoking, emphysema being a leading and well-known illness associated with tobacco use. However, other causes — such as exposure to indoor and workplace pollutants, respiratory infections and genetic factors — play a role as well; in the developing world, indoor air quality is said to play a greater role in COPD than in the United States, according to the CDC. In addition to its similarities to asthma in terms of symptoms, COPD also is similarly widespread but much more deadly.
According to Drive4COPD, a campaign run by the COPD Foundation, the disease affects some 24 million Americans, and according to the CDC, it causes more than 100,000 deaths per year. In 2000, for example, 116,494 Americans died from COPD, a number that increased to 126,005 in 2005. The number of women dying from the disease was higher than the number of men, with 65,193 women dying in 2005, compared with 60,812. Meanwhile, while death rates for COPD declined from 57-per-100,000 in 1999 to 46.4-per 100,000 in 2006 for men, there was no significant decline in death rates among women, which went from 35.3-per-100,000 to 34.2-per-100,000 during the same period.