HIBBING — Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is currently the fifth leading cause of death in Minnesota, according to a new report the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

Sometimes called emphysema and chronic bronchitis, the disease affects roughly half of Minnesotans but they have yet to be diagnosed with the disease.

In St. Louis County, the percentage of undiagnosed chronic diseases is 5 to 15 percent higher than the state average, the MDH reports.

COPD, an umbrella term for progressive lung diseases, often goes undiagnosed until people are hospitalized or have a flare-up. Increasing breathlessness is a major characteristic of the disease, among other symptoms.

Minnesota spent $1.9 billion — or $31,100 per person — on COPD care in 2012, the MDH report found. This accounted for 7.1 percent of all health care spending that year.

“The costs and the suffering associated with COPD are largely preventable,” said state Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger in a release. “We must continue our community-wide efforts to reduce smoking, while also helping individuals to quit and seek the care they need to identify and manage this deadly lung disease.”

Twelve percent of Minnesota adults over age 75 have COPD. The disease was once more common among men, but women are closing the gap. This is due in part to increased use of tobacco among women after World War II.

What hasn’t wavered much is the death rate of women due to COPD. The MDH states that death rates for COPD have declined for men, but remain unchanged for women.

“Early diagnosis and treatment of COPD is the key to reducing symptoms and ensuring a high quality of life,” said Dr. Jim Ehlen, chair of the American Lung Association in Minnesota Leadership Board.

In St. Louis County, there have been 916 hospitalizations due to COPD over the past five years, MDH found.

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD.

In the northeast region of the state, which includes Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis counties, the MDH reports that just over 18 percent of the population are smokers, while 35 percent of the population are former smokers. The state average is 14 percent.

Of those who identify as smokers, they report smoking an average of 13 cigarettes daily.

In terms of secondhand smoke, the MDH found that nearly 35 percent of the population in the northeast region of the state had been exposed to tobacco smoke in a seven day period.

Other risk factors for COPD are long-term workplace exposures to certain environmental lung irritants and genetic predisposition.

There is no cure for COPD, but measures can be taken to prevent it, slow its progression and prevent COPD exacerbations. Those measures include: refrain from or quit smoking, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, avoid exposure to air pollution and avoid exposure to certain gases, fumes and dusts in the workplace.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms:

* Chronic cough

* Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities

* Frequent respiratory infections

* Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds

* Fatigue

* Producing a lot of mucus

* Wheezing

Source: Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)

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