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The Rise of COPD in Women

By

Nancy LeBrun

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The number of women who develop COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, has risen rapidly in the past forty years and in 2008, the illness, which had always been considered a “male disease,” became more common in women than in men. COPD is a term covering several progressive lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which make breathing increasingly difficult.  It is almost always linked to smoking, though in some instances it can be caused by environmental or other factors.

Why COPD is increasing among women

The upsurge in COPD in females mirrors the rise in smoking among them. Beginning in the 1930’s and 40’s, cigarettes became more socially acceptable for women, and as more of them began to smoke, so did their risk of developing lung problems. Because COPD can take up to 20 years to develop, the link between smoking and the disease was easy to overlook. Today, more than 7 million women in the U.S. alone live with COPD, with many more undiagnosed, and more women than men die from it every year.

Women are more vulnerable to COPD than men

Not only did more women begin to smoke over the years, but also there is evidence that women may well be more susceptible to COPD than their male counterparts. Female lungs and airways are smaller than those of men, which make them more vulnerable to damage from smoke. The irritants from tobacco are more concentrated in the smaller female lung volume, which intensifies the risk of the collapsed airways and trapped air that make it hard to breathe. Women have less lung strength to move smoke in and out, which means more smoke remains in the body. Smoking also affects hormone levels, including the female hormone, estrogen, which can lead to imbalances that affect the way nicotine is absorbed in the body. In sum, women develop COPD more quickly and that applies even if they smoke less than men – and even second hand smoke can be a contributing factor.

COPD is different in women than in men

Women with COPD have more frequent disease flare-ups than men, in which symptoms worsen suddenly. These episodes, which may be caused by a cold or other lung infection, can damage the lungs further, making breathing more and more difficult, even when the infection is gone. Women with COPD tend to have bronchitis, whereas in men, emphysema is more common. Because doctors became accustomed to seeing male COPD patients, they may attribute a woman’s symptoms to asthma or other respiratory ailment, and not recognize it in women, delaying treatment.

What women can do about COPD

If you smoke or are around a heavy smoker and feel short of breath, have a cough that doesn’t go away, or a lot of mucus or phlegm in your throat and chest, ask your doctor if you should be tested for COPD. Although it may be hard, quitting nicotine the most important step you can take for the health of your lungs. If your COPD is mild, breaking the smoking habit may be all the therapy you need.  When women stop smoking, they recover a greater degree of lung function than men and there is always a health benefit, no matter how long or how much you have smoked. There are many treatments for COPD, from a wide variety of medications to lung rehabilitation and supplemental oxygen. Your doctor can help you with a plan to address your disease.

Though COPD cannot be cured, symptoms can be controlled and the progression of the disease slowed. The earlier you are diagnosed, the better your chances of breathing easier. 

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 17, 2016

© 2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

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Medical References

  1. Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise Of COPD In Women. American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/research/lung-health-disparities/the-rise-of-copd-in-women.html
  2. Gender Differences in COPD: are women more susceptible to smoking effects than men? Thorax.  http://thorax.bmj.com/content/65/6/480
  3. How is COPD treated? National Institutes of Health. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/treatment
  4. Women and COPD: Suddenly Epidemic But Largely Undiagnosed. Johns Hopkins Medicine. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/publications/search/search_spring_2013/women_and_copd_suddenly_epidemic_but_largely_underdiagnosed
  5. NIH Fact Sheets: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. National Institutes of Health. https://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=77
  6. How Serious is COPD? American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/learn-about-copd/how-serious-is-copd.html
  7. What is COPD? COPD Foundation. http://www.copdfoundation.org/What-is-COPD/Understanding-COPD/What-is-COPD.aspx
  8. COPD Symptoms. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/symptoms/con-20032017

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