Better Pulmonary Health is in the Air

Autumn and winter bring special breathing challenges for many Americans. Certain mold spores are more prevalent in the autumn, and many who are susceptible are exposed to them while outdoors walking, working, or raking leaves. Changes in temperature can exacerbate breathing problems for people with asthma or respiratory illness, as can dry heat indoors from central heating systems. Air becomes even drier when homeowners use wood-burning stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces. And the negative effects of smoking tobacco products aggravate health and breathing more intensely for smokers, especially when driven indoors where windows in houses are closed up.

November is National Pulmonary Hypertension Awareness Month. Pulmonary arteries carry blood from the heart to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Pulmonary hypertension (PH) means there is increased pressure in the pulmonary arteries. As the pressure builds, the heart must work harder to pump blood through the arteries to the lungs, eventually causing the heart muscle to weaken and sometimes fail.

PH can be caused by changes in the arteries which include tightening or stiffening of the artery walls, and blood clots. General signs and symptoms of PH include:

  • Shortness of breath during everyday activity
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Tiredness
  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Swelling in legs and ankles
  • Bluish color on lips and skin

Anyone can develop pulmonary hypertension. PH can occur at any age, but it usually develops between the ages of 20 and 60. People who are at increased risk for PH include:

  • People with a family history of the condition
  • People with heart and lung disease, liver disease, HIV, or blood clots in pulmonary arteries
  • People who use certain diet medicines or street drugs

Diagnosing and treating PH

PH can develop very slowly, so it is possible to go years without diagnosis because the disease has no early symptoms. Your healthcare provider will diagnose PH using medical and family histories, a physical exam and other tests to determine the pressure in your pulmonary arteries. These tests may include echocardiography (which creates a picture of your heart), a chest x-ray, an electro-cardiogram (or EKG, which shows how fast your heart is beating) or heart catheterization (which measures pressure in arteries). Exercise testing is used to find out how severe your PH is.

Pulmonary hypertension has no cure, but treatment with medicines to relax the blood vessels in the lungs, procedures such as lung transplants and blood vessel dilation, and various oxygen therapies may help relieve symptoms and slow the progress of the disease.

To manage PH, it is important to follow the treatment plan recommended by your health care provider and to contact your provider if you have new symptoms. Other suggestions include:

  • Check with your healthcare provider before using over-the-counter medicines.
  • Track your weight. If you notice rapid weight change, call your health care provider immediately.
  • Women should talk to their health care provider about using birth control. Pregnancy can be risky for women who have PH.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Participate in physical activity, but talk to your health care provider about types of activity that are safe for you.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!