What to Know About Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD for short, is an inflammatory lung disease. It causes obstruction to the airflow from your lungs.

Although COPD is a progressive disease that is incurable, you can treat the symptoms. By managing COPD properly, you can reduce the risk of getting other conditions associated with it and live a healthier life for many years.

If left untreated, COPD can be fatal. Many believe it is caused by smoking, but even non-smokers can get it. In fact, state researchers claim that the death rates from this disease will rise by over 30 percent in the next decade.

COPD affects approximately 30 million people in the United States. More than half of those are unaware they have symptoms of COPD until it is too late. If you recognize any of the symptoms of this illness, it is vital you see a doctor for diagnosis.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

Although chronic coughing and a shortness of breath can be normal signs of aging, these symptoms could indicate you have COPD. If you have difficulty in breathing and you cough on a regular basis, you should see a doctor.

If you leave COPD undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to other conditions, such as lung cancer and heart disease. Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Wheezing.
  • Producing mucus.
  • Feeling a tightness in your chest.
  • A lack of energy.
  • Getting respiratory infections.
  • A blueish coloring in your fingernail beds or lips.
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles or feet.
  • Weight loss.

What causes COPD?

The number one cause of COPD in developing countries is smoking tobacco. However, while smoking is one of the main causes, inhaling other pollutants can also cause COPD.

Pollutants that trigger COPD can come from all sorts of chemicals. For example, individuals may develop COPD after exposure to fumes from burning fuel, ingesting chemicals and dust in work environments or being in a poorly ventilated home.

Genetics also play a part in developing COPD. People who have never been exposed to pollutants and who have never smoked can still get the disease if someone in their family carries the genetic trait for it.

The most common form of genetic COPD is caused by a deficiency of the protein Alpha-1 Antitrypsin in the bloodstream. Without this protein, lung deterioration starts to occur when white blood cells harm your lungs.

The good news is you can be tested for it if you know your family has a history of COPD, and you can take preventative steps. However, it is important to keep in mind that you can develop COPD without a family history.

Diagnosing COPD

If you think you may have COPD or if the disease runs in your family, it is best to see a doctor. If you have a family history, you should consider testing for the disease even if you do not have any symptoms.

One common test used to find out if you have COPD is a spirometry test. This simple, non-invasive test measures how well your lungs are working.

To take the test, you blow into a mouthpiece that is connected to a spirometer machine. The spirometer then calculates the amount of air your blow in and out in six seconds or more.

A spirometry test also shows how severe your COPD is, if you have it. There are four different stages of COPD. You will be classified based on test results and the severity of your symptoms.

To discern which stage you are in, your doctor may require further pulmonary tests. He or she may also request additional tests to find out if your symptoms are caused by other lung disorders.

This could include an x-ray of your chest or a bronchodilator reversibility test, which determines whether the function of your lungs improves with medication. Your doctor may also take a CT scan of your lungs. This helps to detect emphysema and lung cancer.

Your doctor may also suggest a blood test called an arterial blood gas analysis. This measures the amount of oxygen your lungs are bringing into your bloodstream and how well your lungs are removing carbon dioxide.

Preventing COPD

As one of the main causes for developing COPD is smoking tobacco, you can prevent the disease or reduce your odds of developing it by not smoking. If you are already a smoker, work towards kicking the habit. Talk to a healthcare professional to find out about the support methods available to help you give up cigarettes.

Related Article: Tobacco Use Screening and Cessation Programs

However, the other main cause of COPD is exposure to fumes and other pollutants. If you work in an environment where these things irritate your lungs, you need to find a way of protecting yourself.

This could include using protective respiratory equipment while at work. You may even want to find another job if pollutants are having a major effect on your health.

Treating COPD

There are a number of treatments for COPD.  The majority of people get mild forms of the disease that can be treated by giving up smoking or avoiding pollutants in the workplace.

There is effective therapy available for people who have more advanced stages of COPD too. In severe cases of COPD, surgery may be an option. This could include a lung transplant, lung volume reduction surgery and a bullectomy.

There are medications that can treat COPD as well. Some of these medications are taken on a regular basis while others are taken as required every now and then. Medications for treating COPD include:

  • Bronchodilators. These types of medications generally come with an inhaler. They help to relax the muscles surrounding your airways in order to relieve shortness of breath and coughing.
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. This medication is for people who have severe COPD. It helps to decrease the inflammation of your airways.
  • Inhaled steroids. This also helps to reduce your airway inflammation.
  • Oral steroids. Short courses of these medications prevent the worsening of COPD and can help reduce symptoms.
  • Antibiotics. Although antibiotics are typically not used for preventing COPD, they are great for treating respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia which can aggravate the symptoms of COPD.
  • Theophylline. This medication helps to improve your breathing and prevent symptoms from worsening.

You can also reduce the risk of aggravating symptoms of COPD by getting vaccines against common illnesses that can aggravate your breathing. For instance, the flu shot is recommended for all COPD patients.

Related Article: Immunizations as Preventative Care

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