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.
The most common symptoms of COPD are cough and shortness of breath, although many people with COPD also experience tightness in the chest and a characteristic barrel shaped chest.
There are actually two separate illnesses affiliated with COPD, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Most people with COPD have a combination of both illnesses. Chronic bronchitis is a long lasting cough that produces mucus, while emphysema is a gradual disease that eventually completely destroys the lungs.
The cough associated with COPD is best described as “chronic” and lasts for more than three months out of the year for a period of at least two years. The cough is persistent and also often produces sputum, but not always. The cough is also really intense and can lead to rib fractures or even losing consciousness.
Because COPD and chronic coughing also makes it difficult to get enough air into the lungs, poor oxygen levels also lead to fatigue, in addition to wheezing, shortness of breath that gets worse with even mild exercise or movement, and weight loss.
Smoking is the most common cause of COPD. About 80 percent of cases of COPD are caused by smoking. Other risk factors for COPD include the following:
- Prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke, such as living with a smoker
- Environmental causes, such as working with materials that are lung irritants
- People with HIV or AIDS
- People over 40 years of age
In some rare cases, a genetic condition limits the body’s production of a specific protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin and that can make COPD more likely to occur.
COPD is usually diagnosed using spirometry. Patients blow into a machine called a spirometer, which measures air flow. Reduced air flow means the lungs are functioning poorly, which is a common sign of COPD. Blood tests also include arterial blood gas, which measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Poor arterial blood gas results are associated with more difficulties with breathing and generally occur when the disease is more advanced.
Chest x-rays and CT scans can be used to diagnose emphysema and to rule out other conditions. Sputum and blood tests can diagnose infections. Specific blood tests can look for the protein that would indicate a genetic cause of COPD.
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 discomfort 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 guaifinesin 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 of 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.