Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is one of the most common lung diseases. About six percent of the population lives with COPD, and it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States. The primary types of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and most people with COPD have a combination of both conditions.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly referred to as COPD, is a blanket term used to describe a host of medical conditions. These conditions, which may include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, restrict airway function in the lungs through inflammation and thickening of the airways. Eventually, the body cannot get enough oxygen to function normally, as lung tissue is often irreparably damaged.
Who Gets COPD?
COPD is almost always related to smoking. It is estimated that over 80% of cases are related to the smoking of tobacco products (American Lung Association). In some cases, exposure to environmental contaminants may lead to COPD. These contaminants may include secondhand smoke from tobacco products, exhaust from motor vehicles, and industrial chemicals. In rare cases, an inherited form of COPD known as Alpha-1 deficiency emphysema may be to blame.
Estimates indicate that 11 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, but over 24 million people may be affected. Most of these people do not even realize they have a chronic health condition. This is due, in part, to the fact that COPD symptoms are similar to those of other, often less severe, illnesses. Misinterpreting symptoms often leads to a delay in diagnosis. Because of this, many patients have more advanced stages of disease by the time they can begin treatment.
COPD rarely affects people under the age of 35, with most sufferers being diagnosed in their 50’s or later.
COPD Symptoms, Causes and Diagnosis
Common symptoms of COPD may include:
- shortness of breath during physical activity
- a persistent cough with phlegm
- production of excess phlegm
- blue lips and nail beds
- wheezing and recurrent or prolonged respiratory infections
As the disease progresses, symptoms will typically worsen over time. Lung tissue becomes damaged, and breathing becomes more and more labored.
If COPD is suspected, there are several tests which may be used to determine the cause of symptoms. Patients may be asked to breathe into a spirometer, which measures airflow output. This will determine how much air volume patients can supply within one minute, and overall. Measurements are compared to normal readings in a patient’s age group to determine if airways are obstructed.
Additional tests may also be necessary. Patients may have to measure airflow over the course of several days to ensure asthma isn’t the cause of symptoms. A chest X-ray may also be performed for doctors to get a visual reading of the lungs.
Treatment options for COPD will depend on the symptoms present and the stage of illness. For most patients, a nebulizer and/or inhaler will be used to administer medications directly to the lungs in order to open airways and prevent inflammation. Those with severe cases may require oxygen therapy. This may be needed at all times, only at night, or only during periods of physical activity.
Those who smoke tobacco products should be offered assistance in quitting. This is the single most important thing patients can do to slow the progression of the disease.
What is the Prognosis for COPD?
With modern medications, some individuals can live for many years with COPD. The length and quality of life will depend largely on the patient’s overall health, age, how early the disease is diagnosed, and whether the patient continues to use tobacco products. Those who quit smoking maintain their health longer than those who continue using tobacco.
There is no cure for COPD, and it is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. (American Lung Association). Most of these deaths are preventable, as the majority of cases are directly related to smoking tobacco products.
There is no cure for COPD, and the disease gets worse over time. However, you can minimize your symptoms and even slow the progression of the disease if you make lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and following good nutrition.
You can also relieve some of your chest discomforts by using a bronchodilator, usually in the form of an inhaler. This opens up the airways in your lungs to allow you to breathe more easily. Short-acting inhalers provide relief for 4 to 6 hours and are only used on an as-needed basis. Long-acting inhalers are intended for everyday use and provide relief for up to 12 hours.
Steroid medications reduce some of the swelling and inflammation in the lungs. Steroids can be given either in pill form or in inhalers.
Oxygen therapy is often used as the disease of COPD gets worse and you find it more difficult to breathe on your own. Rehabilitation therapists can also teach different ways of breathing, such as with pursed lips, which can help you to take more air into your lungs and breathe more freely.
Expectorant medications like guaifenesin thin and loosen the mucus in your lungs and make it easier to cough it out.
Antibiotics are used for respiratory infections, which are frequent and common in COPD. Frequent hospitalizations are also common with COPD because of serious complications like right-sided heart failure, pneumonia, pneumothorax, and malnutrition.
Surgery may be used in the most severe cases. Surgical treatments for COPD include removing the diseased parts of the lungs and even total lung transplants in some cases.
It’s also important to improve your home and work environment to help manage symptoms of COPD. Not surprisingly, because this disease is so strongly linked to smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke also increases the advancement of the illness and should be avoided. Cold weather also seems to make symptoms of COPD significantly worse, so it’s important to stay indoors as much as possible during the winter.
Although you can’t cure COPD once you have the disease, you can control how quickly the illness progresses. Quitting smoking is by far the most important thing you can do to prevent or slow down the progression of COPD. Even cutting back on how much you smoke could make a difference, since both the risk of developing COPD and the severity of the symptoms is linked to heavier smoking.