Health screenings are used in many aspects of the medical profession to prevent the progression of diseases, to assess symptoms and to try to prevent the development of illness. One of the more common areas where screening is used is in lung health.
An estimated 154,050 Americans were expected to die from lung cancer in 2018, which accounts for around 25 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the American Lung Association.
Common Lung Disorders & Their Symptoms
Smoking is a leading cause of chronic respiratory diseases, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These diseases are major conditions of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD and lung cancer could become uncommon in future generations if smoking rates were reduced, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms of these lung disorders include, but are not limited to, worsening cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, and back pain, among others. The symptoms are not very specific, and can often be attributed to other ailments. This makes screening all too important.
Below is a brief explanation of each condition.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Lung conditions marked by the inability to exhale normally. Chronic bronchitis: A type of COPD distinguished by a chronic cough. Emphysema: Lung damage that allows air to be trapped in your lungs and reduces the patient’s ability to blow out air. Lung cancer can develop in any part of the lungs. Your treatment options depend on the type, location, and the spread of lung cancer in your body.
How Early Detection Saves Lives
Early detection for these diseases is crucial to any patient’s health. With any disease, the earlier it is detected, the earlier it can be fought. With lung disorders, it is highly beneficial for patients who have a history of smoking or chronic lung issues to get tested regularly.
Depending on the stage of lung cancer, treatment options include radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, and medications. The earlier the stage, the more options your doctor has to treat the condition effectively.
Science Supports Low-Dose CT Scans as Lung Cancer Screening
While the reduction of smoking rates is the best solution for lung diseases, early screening is the best way to catch the diseases early, and to reduce the chances of death. A newly accepted method of screening for lung cancer is an annual screening with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT).
Quitting smoking can be one of the most challenging addictions to overcome. But it can also the most beneficial.
According to the Center for Disease Control, on average 443,000 people die every year as a result of cigarette smoking and another 8.6 million live with a disease attributed to smoking. Tobacco companies have dedicated countless hours and funds toward finding the perfect amount of nicotine to keep consumers addicted. If you are one of the lucky few that is able to quit smoking then you have already given yourself a longer and healthier lifestyle.
But if you are or were a long-term smoker, then there are still health risks that you should be conscious of, and give proper medical attention to.
Common Medical Imaging Tests Ex-Smokers May Need
Below is a list of some medical imaging procedures that former cigarette smokers should consider having performed in order to determine the damaging effects that smoking may have had on their health.
CT Scan / CAT Scan
A CT Scan can be beneficial for a former smoker in that it examines the organs and structures of the chest cavity. Since the area of the body that is most affected by cigarette smoking is the lungs, examining all areas of the pulmonary system is essential. By using X-ray and computer technology, CT-scans provide cross-sectional images of the lung, liver and heart tissues. CT scans are also useful in diagnosing cancer and guiding biopsy procedures in the event that your doctor finds something that needs further examination. Screening for Lung Cancer with Low-Dose CT is now recommended annually for certain former or current heavy smokers aged 55-80 years. Doctors Imaging offers the test for $99.00 and you can call to schedule after you have a doctor’s order. If the cost of the test is a problem, call Doctors Imaging and ask to make special arrangements.
Another harmful effect of long-term cigarette addiction is the narrowing and damage to the body’s blood vessels. This is a dangerous effect because it can lead to stroke and heart attack. By having an MRI procedure performed, images of the blood vessels in the heart, brain, kidneys, aorta, and extremities can be properly seen and examined.
Many think that ultrasounds are just for pregnancy, but ultrasounds are non-invasive and so detailed today that they can provide four-dimensional images of the internal cavities. Ultrasounds are useful if you experience chest pains or heart palpitations, both common in long-term smokers, as ultrasounds are beneficial for the examination of the blood flow and heart valve functions.
What’s the Next Healthy Step for You?
The vast majority of these procedures are relatively non-invasive and can provide fast and detailed results. If you have already taken the first step in obtaining a healthier lifestyle by quitting smoking, then give yourself another benefit, get screened for lung cancer with a CT scan and learn what your body needs to be healthier and live longer.
Smoking is one of the worst vices to have. Thankfully, over the past 50 years, research and education about the dangers of smoking have become widespread. Still, knowledge of the danger is only part of the battle. For current smokers, it’s never too late to quit and there are several medical options that can support your efforts to quit.
Nicotine Patches and Gum Can Ease Your Cravings
Nicotine is the highly addictive chemical additive in cigarettes that keeps you coming back for more. In some ways, nicotine is as deadly as the dangerous carcinogens found in cigarettes. Patches and gum provide just enough nicotine to avoid immediately harm you. But be careful: You can actually overdose on nicotine. While using these products, you may still be addicted to nicotine. Nicotine gum has proven effective at stopping people in the beginning of their transition out of smoking cigarettes. In the beginning, you are taking in about the same amount of nicotine. And then you slowly decrease your levels in an effort to wean yourself off the habit of smoking. For many smokers, one of the hardest parts of quitting is losing that oral habit, so chewing gum can be helpful in keeping that bit of routine. However, be careful not to give in to the cravings when you are using nicotine replacement products. The overload of nicotine to your system can have harmful side effects.
Prescriptions Can Assist With Nicotine Withdrawal
Some smokers have found relief from the addiction through nicotine replacement therapy found with certain prescription medicines. The two major brands of anti-smoking medications are Zyban and Chantix. Zyban contains the active ingredient Bupropion and helps to lessen the urge to smoke. Chantix contains Varenicline which helps with nicotine withdrawal. If a user decides to smoke again, the medicine in Chantix blocks the nicotine from cigarettes. These medicines have serious side effects such as nausea, sleep disturbance, constipation, flatulence, and vomiting as well as headaches, abnormal dreams, and taste disturbance as well as some psychological problems.
Electronic Cigarettes and Vaping Products Are Unproven for Helping You Quit Nicotine
The sale of electronic cigarettes or e-cigs has exploded in the last 3-5 years. The products allow users to enjoy the sensation of smoking without tobacco. Early e-cigarettes were filled with a solution of propylene glycol, glycerin, nicotine, and flavorings which are superheated to a breathable vapor. Like the patch and gum, the amount of nicotine in the e-cig solution is supposed to decrease your smoking until you don’t have the urge anymore. Electronic cigarettes have come under fire because of the health risks of the chemicals in the solutions. Additionally, some critics say that the product simply acts as a stall before actually quitting.
“Since no single product or substance has been associated with the illness, persons should consider not using e-cigarettes while this investigation is ongoing, especially those purchased from sources other than authorized retailers (e.g., e-cigarette products with (tetrahydrocannabinol) THC) and those modified in a manner not intended by the manufacturer.”
“Adult smokers who are attempting to quit should consult with their health care provider and use proven treatments. Irrespective of these findings, e-cigarettes should never be used by youths, young adults, pregnant women, and adults who do not currently use tobacco products.”
On Sept 9, 2019, the FDA warned Juul Labs that it had illegally marketed its vaping products as a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes without approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the agency said. In a warning letter to the e-cigarette company, the FDA raised concerns over Juul’s outreach efforts, including testimony that a representative told high school students that Juul was “totally safe,” The New York Times reports. The letter comes amid the public health crisis over e-cigarettes, with more than 400 cases of potentially vaping-related illness reported in the U.S.
Never buy electronic cigarettes and related products from unauthorized sellers because of the risk that vaping ingredients can trigger fatal lung disease in otherwise healthy people.
Find Support From Your Doctor, Peers and Others
If you are interested in using medical smoking cessation products, speak to your doctor about your quitting solutions before you start. Weaning yourself off of any addiction is extremely difficult. That’s why if you are starting this journey, you should definitely find support. Reach out to an online community and start avoiding same activities that you may associate with smoking. The benefits of quitting smoking, no matter when, can be felt immediately. Former smokers report better moods, better digestion, better taste, better sleep patterns and not to mention the long-term health benefits.
The Next Step: Lung Cancer Screenings
By using low-dose CT scans as lung cancer screenings, radiologists are able to determine the presence of lung cancer better than ever before. Because of our technologically advanced low-dose CT technology, our radiologists’ experience, and highly trained staff, patients of Doctors Imaging can be assured that their lung cancer screening is thorough. Doctors Imaging often sees the damage of smoking on the body and encourages you to enjoy the benefits of quitting smoking as soon as possible. We recommend that if you are over 50 and used to or still smoke cigarettes or tobacco, you should consider a lung screening. The earlier lung cancer is detected and treatment has begun, the higher your chances are of survival.
Emphysema is just one of several conditions under the umbrella term “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” COPD is a condition that causes the lungs to have difficulty taking in air. COPD includes conditions like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. Emphysema is the deadliest of the conditions and we will explore the symptoms and the diagnosis process. In Louisiana alone, more than 7% of the population is affected by COPD.
Source: COPD Foundation (PDF).
Symptoms of Emphysema and COPD
Many patients may have the disease but be unaware of it. Here’s a look at signs you may have the emphysema or COPD:
The earliest symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath. Even the slightest activities may tire you out.
A cough that won’t go away
Chest tightness or chest pain
How Doctors Identify Emphysema
What does emphysema look like? To begin, the interior of the lungs are filled with small air sacs called alveoli. These air sacs expand with oxygen when you breathe in and allow oxygen to get into the bloodstream. Emphysema is a condition that causes these air sacs to weaken and ultimately rupture. When they rupture, there is less area for oxygen to be taken in and since emphysema is a chronic condition, these alveoli will continue to weaken and rupture until the lungs are not able to expand and contract on their own.
Emphysema is most notably a result of cigarette or tobacco smoking. The chemicals found in cigarette smoke can total over 7,000 and they are extremely toxic to the entirety of the body, but the lungs take most of the damage. Upon inhalation, the hot smoke and toxic chemicals damage the lung tissue and with an addictive habit like cigarettes, the damage happens multiple times a day for years. With every puff, more lung tissue dies and once it is dead, there is no replacing it. In fact, about 85 to 90 percent of all COPD cases are caused by cigarette smoking in the United States.
If you are a long-term smoker or a former smoker and are over the age of 50, your chances for developing emphysema are much higher. The signs of COPD or emphysema can be confused with other conditions because things like shortness of breath or difficulty catching breath could be misconstrued as part of the aging process or the result of lifestyle choices. You see, as the air sacs are slowly destroyed, air becomes trapped in the lungs and is difficult to expel as well as obtain. Furthermore, if you are experiencing a tightness in the chest that does not seem to pass, these could be the beginning warning signs of COPD and possibly emphysema.
Diagnosing emphysema requires a few different tests. To begin, the doctor will use a physical examination to test things like your vitals and blood pressure. Following a physical, doctors will usually perform a combination of pulmonary function tests to examine the strength and performance of the lungs. Pulmonary function tests include breathing into tubes that can test how much air you are expelling, how fast it is being expelled, and how much air remains after exhalation.
Chest X-Rays and CT Scans
If the results of the pulmonary function test prove conclusive toward symptoms of COPD, doctors will use medical imaging to confirm the diagnosis. A chest x-ray is often performed to see if the lungs have become enlarged because of excess air or if there are structural changes in the lungs. However, diagnosing emphysema cannot be done with a chest x-ray alone. Chest CT scans are also used to diagnose COPD because they can show pockets of air in the lungs which are symptomatic of damage from COPD. All of these procedures are completely painless and require no invasive surgery and yet still provide accurate details and diagnosis.
A low-dose CT scan of the chest is a good way to detect multiple diseases and disorders, including chronic respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Early detection of these diseases and disorders is essential to the successful fight against them. The earlier they are detected, the better chance a patient has at survival.
This brings up a question, though. If preventative screening is key to catching these diseases early, how often should one get tested? Let’s take a look at today at one case in particular: a 55-year old ex-smoker who recently stopped smoking.
Our ex-smoker is 55 years old, and has had a history of smoking. The patient has since stopped. The patient shows lung cancer symptoms now but is worried about an increased chance of developing lung cancer or some other respiratory condition in the future.
Where Public Health Organizations Agree
In August of 2011, the results of the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) found that screening with low-dose spiral computed tomography (LDCT) scans compared to chest X-ray reduced lung cancer deaths among older heavy smokers by 20%, according to the American Lung Association.
As of December 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force began recommending “annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) in adults aged 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. Screening should be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that substantially limits life expectancy or the ability or willingness to have curative lung surgery.” Further, the USPSTF “concludes with moderate certainty that annual screening for lung cancer with LDCT is of moderate net benefit in asymptomatic persons who are at high risk for lung cancer based on age, total cumulative exposure to tobacco smoke, and years since quitting smoking.”
The American Lung Association is on the same page: Our patient should get tested if they are a current or former smoker aged 55 to 74 years old, has had a history of smoking for at least 30 packs per year and has no history of lung cancer.
Now, if our patient gets tested and the results come back with no signs of lung cancer, are they off the hook for future testing?