Fighting for Air: Veterans Face Higher Risk for Developing Lung Diseases

COPD Foundation

COPD FoundationAmerica’s men and women who serve or have served in the military often face different health issues than their American civilians. During wartime, troops’ main health concerns are life-threatening injuries, or possible disability-related wounds from shrapnel, lost limbs, or head injuries. In addition, there are potential hazards from exposure to environmental factors such as contaminated water, chemical contact, and infections or sickness.

For example, during battle in Iraq and Afghanistan some soldiers and faced a barrage of respiratory exposure, including:

  • Smoke from burn pits
  • Sand dust
  • Aerosolized metals and chemicals from exploded IEDs
  • Outdoor aeroallergens such as date pollen
  • Indoor aeroallergens such as mold aspergillus

A major, and growing, health concern that returning soldiers and veterans should be aware of is COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – a lung disease characterized by chronic obstruction of airflow that interferes with normal breathing. The more familiar terms “chronic bronchitis” and “emphysema” are no longer used, but are now included within the COPD diagnosis. COPD is not simply a “smoker’s cough” but a life-threatening lung disease.

It is now estimated that more than 12 million people are diagnosed with COPD in the U.S., and yet this number does not include a growing number of undiagnosed individuals with COPD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 24 million Americans have symptoms of COPD. COPD is a progressive disease, so it is imperative that one receives as early a diagnosis as possible, because it is incurable, and early treatment is vital for slowing its progress. While COPD is mainly a risk factor for people who have smoked, it should also be noted that the disease has underlying genetic risk factors and healthy non-smokers can also develop the disease.

The Battle Against COPD

The chance that our military veterans will develop COPD is three times higher than that of the civilian U.S. population In fact, COPD is the fifth most prevalent disease in the veteran population, affecting approximately 15 percent of Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare users. Amongst hospitalized veterans aged 65-74, COPD is the fourth most common diagnosis.

Military veterans may be exposed to greater amounts of dust, fumes, and chemicals at levels that could lead to lung damage. Because many veterans living with COPD don’t know they have it, it is important that they recognize the disease symptoms as soon as possible:

  • Ongoing cough, or a cough that produces large amounts of mucus
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
  • Chest tightness

COPD symptoms can occur years before the flow of air into and out of the lungs worsens. In addition to shortness of breath, COPD patients commonly suffer from anxiety and depression, making this disease a serious medical, financial, and emotional burden on patients and their care-giving families. Veterans who show signs of COPD, or think they might be at risk, should consult their physician as soon as possible and ask to be screened for the disease. Also, they can take the first step toward determining their risk by taking the five-question COPD Risk Screener at:

John W. WalshIn order to help prevent, diagnose, and treat COPD, military veterans should get an annual breathing test, called spirometry, to determine if lung function is changing, and discuss any concerns about exposure to possible environmental hazards with a physician. By knowing the risks that can increase the chances of COPD, veterans can take steps now to reduce their exposure and maintain lung health for a long time to come. November is COPD Awareness Month, an ideal time for veterans – and all Americans – to get screened and learn more about COPD diagnosis, treatment, and the many advances in research being made to ultimately cure this disease.

About the Author

John W. Walsh, who was diagnosed with Alpha-1-related genetic COPD in 1989, is the Co-Founder and President of the COPD Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing and supporting programs, which improve the quality of life through research, education, early diagnosis and enhanced therapy for persons whose lives are impacted by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). He is also the Co-Founder of the Alpha-1 Foundation (a research organization) and AlphaNet, Inc. (a unique, not-for-profit disease management services company run by and for patients). He can be reached at 1-866-316-COPD (2673) or