November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, a time when many people in my profession shine a spotlight on the dangers of taking lung health for granted. This year, few need the reminder.
COVID-19 is deadly, contagious, and upending life as we know it. It is also a lung disease. As a thoracic surgeon, I tell people that, if you’re worried about COVID-19, what you’re really worried about is lung health. And while there is not currently a cure or vaccine to protect against COVID-19, there are myriad ways to protect the health of your lungs.
Many of those most affected by COVID-19 are people who hadn’t been taking care of their lungs. Obesity, inactivity, smoking, and poor diet set people up for weaker lungs and more severe disease. This has always been the case, but the pandemic is shining a harsh light on the need for all of us to take pulmonary health seriously.
Give up smoking and vaping. More than 16 million people live with at least one disease caused by smoking, and smokers who develop COVID-19 are at an increased risk of requiring invasive interventions. In the U.K., smokers have taken the hint, with record numbers quitting during the pandemic’s height.
The U.S., unfortunately, has not seen a similar decline. But we should. By quitting now, smokers can decrease their risk of death from COVID-19 as well as from a host of other diseases, including cancer.
Get in shape. With gyms still mostly closed and much of “normal” life still on hold, exercise has fallen by the wayside for many people. Many researchers fear obesity could be on the rise, which puts people at risk of heart disease, cancer, and lung disease. Obesity triples the risk of hospitalization due to COVID-19.
Thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise has been proven time and again to help people maintain their health. Bouts of activity can be broken out throughout the day – five minute walks here, 10 minute walks there, jumping jacks, and walking in place between Zoom meetings. Regardless of the intensity or type of activity, getting regular physical exercise has never been more important.
See a doctor. The best way to evaluate your lung function is to have your lung function evaluated. Health screenings, particularly for smokers or for those with chronic lung issues, are essential during this time of heightened concern. Because lung disease can go undetected for several years, regular check-ups with your primary care physician can help uncover problems while they are still manageable enough to treat.
Pay attention to air quality – inside and out. The recent fires have made air quality around Orange County unpredictable. Small particles of carbon monoxide and ash in the air can travel hundreds of miles from a fire and float in the air for up to two weeks. Inhaling these can cause both short-term and long-term damage to the airways and lungs. When air quality is questionable, try to stay inside as much as possible. And while you are inside, getting rid of indoor pollutants, such as dust, dander, and toxic cleaners, can also play a role in promoting pulmonary health.
This is the most unusual Lung Health Awareness Month in recent memory – and perhaps it will be the most successful one. Keeping our lungs healthy by exercising, eating well, and quitting or avoiding smoking has taken on heightened importance, and my hope is that long after the threat of COVID-19 passes, we will all be able to breathe a deep, healthy sigh of relief.
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