What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term that refers to persistent lung conditions which affect your ability to breathe.
COPD can occur in anyone, but is more commonly diagnosed in women and individuals over the age of 65.
The primary risk factor for COPD is smoking. Other risks include regular exposure to air pollution and chemical vapors. (1)
COPD is caused by prolonged inflammation or irritation to your respiratory system. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema and are the most common forms of the disease. (2)
Emphysema arises when the air sacs in your lungs become damaged. These air sacs transfer oxygen into your bloodstream.
Chronic bronchitis is caused by persistent inflammation of your bronchial tubes. These are the passageways which transfer air from your windpipe to your lungs. (3)
If they are not functioning normally, your body will not get the oxygen it needs. (4)
COPD can manifest as the following symptoms:
Coughing can be caused by many different issues. However, a cough that keeps recurring or never improves can be a classic sign of COPD.
This cough can also be productive, meaning it is accompanied by mucus. As the disease advances, the mucus produced can increase. (5)
COPD can cause a distinct wheeze. As your airways grow more restricted, you may hear whistling when inhaling or exhaling.
Depending how advanced COPD has become, wheezing can occur with regular breathing or only during exertion. (6)
Shortness of Breath
As COPD affects your ability to breathe, you can feel short of breath. This symptom can be mild or severe depending on the disease stage.
You may constantly feel like you can’t catch your breath. Or, shortness of breath can manifest only during physical activity. (7)
People with COPD are more prone to respiratory infections. These infections can affect any part of your airways, from your chest to your throat.
If you’re suffering from frequent respiratory infections, it could be a warning sign of COPD. (8)
COPD is a condition that progresses slowly, causing a decline in lung function.
The disease can cause few or no noticeable symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage.
COPD can be staged according to your FEV1, or forced expiratory volume. This is how much air you can blow from your lungs in one second.
The stages of COPD are as follows: (9)
Your respiratory system is in optimal condition. Your FEV1 is at the ideal rate for your age and health.
Your FEV1 is rated at 80 percent or higher. Symptoms of COPD at this stage are mild.
You might experience a cough that produces mucus. However, limitations on your ability to breathe are minimal.
COPD at this stage is moderate. FEV1 can be between 50 to 80 percent of the normal rate.
You will cough more frequently, possibly with increased mucus production. Symptoms are now beginning to affect your breathing.
By now, COPD is severe. Your FEV1 is at 30 to 50 percent of what it should be. Breathing is now seriously inhibited.
You will find it difficult to perform daily activities. Shortness of breath can make it hard to exercise and cause fatigue.
This stage is also known as end-stage COPD. Your FEV1 is at the same rate as stage 3 or lower than 30 percent.
Oxygen levels in your blood are extremely low. Blood oxygen is essential for normal body function, which means inadequate supplies can result in critical health complications.
Issues relating to your breathing can escalate into life threatening episodes. Your quality of life will be gravely impaired by COPD at this stage.
If you present with symptoms of COPD, your doctor will first perform a physical examination. This is usually done with a stethoscope to listen to your breathing.
Imaging tests such as a chest x-ray might be performed to check your lungs. You may also take a spirometry test to test lung function.
A spirometry will examine how much air you inhale and exhale per one second. The reading will indicate if you have any obstruction in your airways.
Treatments for COPD aim to slow down progression of the disease and alleviate symptoms.
If you are a smoker and diagnosed with COPD it is essential to quit the habit. You must also make an effort to reduce inhaling irritants in general. Examples include: chemical fumes, air pollution and second hand tobacco smoke. (10)
Depending on the severity of the condition, your doctor may suggest one or more of the following options: (11)
Bronchodilators are drugs that widen and relax your airways and help you breathe better. They are usually come in the form of inhalers.
Short-acting bronchodilators are intended to be used several times a day. However, long-acting bronchodilators should only be used a maximum of twice a day.
They are prescribed if short acting versions are ineffective. Each dose can last for a period of up to 12 hours. (12)
Theophylline is a medication in tablet form which helps open up your airways to improve breathing.
Potential side effects can include insomnia, nausea and headaches. To reduce the risk of adverse reactions, you will also receive regular blood tests while you are being treated. (13)
Steroids can help to reduce inflammation in your airways. These drugs are only prescribed to COPD patients suffering a bad flare up of symptoms.
As steroids tend to have unpleasant side effects, they are not taken for more than two weeks at a time. These effects can include weight gain and weaker bones. (14)
Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program targeted at people with chronic lung disorders, like COPD.
It involves different medical professionals, from physical therapists to dietitians. With supervision and guidance, you will work to optimize your health.
Pulmonary rehabilitation can help you practice habits to reduce COPD symptoms. You will also receive support and counseling for living with COPD long term. (15)
Oxygen therapy is for individuals with advanced COPD. You will inhale oxygen through a mask or nasal tubes for up to 16 hours a day.
This therapy is to prevent oxygen levels in your blood from dropping dangerously low. It does not treat other symptoms of the disease. (16)
For severe COPD, surgical intervention may be required. Badly damaged portions of your lungs may be removed to promote function in healthy areas.
You may require a lung transplant if one or both of your lungs are barely working. A healthy lung will replace the damaged lung from a donor.
Surgeries for COPD are serious operations and it’s considered a last case scenario if other treatments are ineffective. (17)
What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? COPD refers to various conditions that affect your breathing long term.
What are the signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? The signs of COPD include shortness of breath, wheezing and a productive cough. You may also experience discomfort in your chest.
How do you develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? COPD develops when your respiratory system sustains long term damage. This is usually a result of environmental factors (i.e. being a heavy smoker).
How are you diagnosed for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? A doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical examination. If COPD is suspected, a series of tests will be performed. These include chest x-rays, spirometry and blood tests.
What is the best treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? Treatment depends on the severity of your COPD. These can include bronchodilators, mucolytic medication and theophylline. Oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation and surgery are also potential treatments.
What are the long term complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? COPD can severely impair lung function over time. This can negatively impact your quality of life in a variety of ways. Physical activity and even daily tasks can become difficult. (18)
Is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) considered a disability? If your FEV1 is lower than the minimum acceptable rate for your height, you can qualify for disability. The same is true if your COPD causes very low blood oxygen content. (19)
Is there any cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? There is no cure for COPD. However, treatments exist to help manage symptoms and slow the disease’s progression. (20)
Is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) life threatening? Yes, COPD can be life threatening. Your lungs may become so seriously damaged they cannot function anymore, causing potentially fatal breathing issues. (21)
COPD can be a difficult diagnosis to receive. However, there are many treatments that can improve your quality of life and help combat symptoms.
Lifestyle changes should be a priority if you have the disease. Improving your health through exercising and avoiding poor habits can improve your quality of life.
It’s particularly important to stop smoking if you have COPD. Smoking can significantly exacerbate the progress and symptoms of this condition.
You will also have a better prognosis if it is caught earlier. Furthermore, should you have one or more risks for COPD, be vigilant about monitoring potential symptoms.
It’s important to remember, classic warning signs of the disease, like feeling short of breath, are not normal. Even for smokers, if you notice a persistent cough or experience frequent infections, consult a doctor. (22)