ITHACA, N.Y. – “Historically, we’ve always associated COPD with men,” Kay Sharp, president of the board of the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County, said at a panel Wednesday. “It’s becoming more and more of a women’s issue.”

November is COPD awareness month, and this year, health experts in Tompkins County are working to raise awareness of the impact of COPD on women. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., and according to the American Lung Association, more women than men have died from COPD each year since 2000. Researchers estimate about 7 million women in the U.S. are living with COPD.

The cause of the uptick in women’s cases of COPD is unclear but may have to do with a combination of biological and social factors. Gender-biased medical practices may lead to under-diagnosis. For example, women are less likely to be given spirometry tests, which are used to diagnose COPD, when they report respiratory symptoms.

At Wednesday’s panel at the Tompkins County Public Library, representatives from the Tompkins County Health Department, Cayuga Medical Center and League of Women Voters shared information about how people living with respiratory illnesses can find medical treatment and preserve their quality of life.

Susan Dunlop, Anne Reilley and Carrie Westlake shared information about living with COPD. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)

Carrie Westlake, system director for respiratory therapy at Cayuga Medical Center, said for people having respiratory symptoms, “It’s really important to get tested early on.” A spirometry test is the first step toward diagnosis COPD, she said, and helps doctors decide whether to order medications or refer patients to lung specialists.

Westlake said COPD is an umbrella term for multiple respiratory illnesses, with most patients having either chronic bronchitis or emphysema. The telltale symptom of chronic bronchitis, she said, is a persistent congested cough. People with emphysema typically experience shortness of breath.

Smoking is the number one cause of COPD, followed by exposure to secondhand smoke and air pollution. Westlake said about 80 percent of patients treated for COPD at Cayuga Medical Center have a history of smoking.

For smokers diagnosed with COPD, Westlake said quitting smoking is the first step toward halting the disease’s advance.

“The longer you smoke with COPD, the worse and more progressive it will be,” she said.

Anyone with COPD, though, can benefit from physical therapy and group programs designed to improve patients’ quality of life.

Anne Reilley, a physical therapist specializing in geriatric care with CMC, said patients with COPD often struggle with a loss of strength, endurance and balance. She said physical therapy can help patients “by tying in treatment of the bones, the muscles, the whole person to help people regain their function or meet their goals.”

While Reilley works with patients one-on-one, Susan Dunlop, a community health nurse with the Tompkins County Health Department, said group programs can also benefit patients by building social ties along with muscle strength. With Samantha Hillson, director of health promotion for the Tompkins County Department of Health, Dunlop has brought a program called “Harmonicas for Health” to patients throughout the county.

Related: Harmonica program in Tompkins helps with lung health

Over six weeks, program participants play harmonicas to build strength in accessory muscles involved in breathing. Participants also learn about lung conditions and strategies for coping with symptoms.

“You don’t have to know how to play the harmonica to join this group!” Dunlop said, adding, “Laughing is part of the exercise.”

Dunlop also acknowledged that for many people living with COPD, quitting smoking is a tall order. “We don’t want anyone not to come to the program because they’re a former smoker or even are still smoking,” she said.

About 1 million New Yorkers are living with COPD, and if state prevalence matches national trends, a growing proportion of patients are women. Panelists said they hoped that with more information, people living with respiratory symptoms could get the tests and treatment they need.

Featured image: Samantha Hillson leads a “Harmonicas for Health” group. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.