COPD is an acronym for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It’s an umbrella diagnosis for any type of chronic respiratory disease that progresses over time. Essentially, it’s any chronic respiratory issue that constricts your ability to breathe, and gets worse with time. While there is no cure, there are ways to treat COPD. There are even ways to prevent it!
What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a term used to describe the lungs inability to function at full capacity due to permanent damage or chronic issues. To better understand how it works, let’s take a moment to talk about the breathing process.
When you breathe in through your nose and/or mouth, air travels through the pharynx, larynx, and trachea (these parts are known as your throat and windpipe). Once past your trachea, the airways of your throat split into two airways known as the bronchi. Each bronchus feeds into a lung, providing it with the air you just breathed in.
Alveoli are tiny little grape-shaped clusters that branch out into your lungs like trees. Each one has capillaries filled with blood running through it. The job of alveoli is to filter through the blood looking for carbon dioxide, remove the carbon dioxide, and replace with oxygen particles from the air in your lungs (the air you breathed in). This is called gas exchange. It’s what keeps your blood and cells replenished with oxygen.
When a person has COPD, they can’t breathe properly. A number of issues can obstruct the breathing process, including but not limited to:
- Permanent damage to the alveoli of the lungs.
- Alveoli and airways losing elasticity.
- Airways producing more mucus than usual.
- Walls of the bronchial tubes and lungs becoming thick and inflamed.
What Causes COPD?
There are several risk factors with COPD, and not all are common. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), despite being the third leading cause of death in America, COPD is NOT contagious. It’s not caused by a virus or infection. It’s developed over time, and typically affects people 40 years of age or older.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most widely-known culprits of COPD. They are classified as COPD, and each carry their own set of challenges. It is imperative to understand, though, that COPD can be broken down into a few simple risk factors:
Surely you’ve heard this before…and if you have COPD, or you smoke tobacco, you’re probably tired of hearing it. We all know smoking is bad for you. How could it be the main cause of COPD? Simply put, smoking damages the alveoli of the lungs and increases mucus in the airway. Double whammy. Talk with your doctor about quitting smoking. If you’re not quite ready to quit, try cutting down on your tobacco intake.
Long term exposure to chemicals, burning fuels, vapors, or dusts can cause COPD. For example, someone who works in a coal mine. This is most commonly referred to as occupational hazards because it happens through the course of your work.
According to the Mayo Clinic, around 1% of people with COPD have a genetic disorder causing low levels of the protein Alpha-1-antitrypsin; a protein that protects the lungs. It’s very normal for COPD to be present at a very young age in cases with this genetic disorder.
What are the Symptoms of COPD?
Early detection of COPD is key. Though there is no cure, there are treatments available and lifestyle changes that can improve the quality and length of life in a person diagnosed with this disease.
Early detection is difficult because in its early stages, COPD doesn’t have any obvious symptoms. Often times a person has symptoms for many years, but doesn’t recognize them as actual symptoms of COPD. The stage and severity of a person’s COPD is directly correlated to their symptoms. General respiratory distress (mild difficulty breathing) over a long period of time is a decent indicator of COPD, but certainly not the only one.
Here are a few common signs of developing COPD from the COPD Foundation:
- Shortness of breath during daily activities. It’s not unusual for someone who is feeling short of breath while folding the laundry or moving around the garage to brush the feeling off as normal aging, general fatigue, or attribute the breathlessness as a product of being out of shape. If this sounds like you, or someone you know, it’s time to see your doctor. This is one of the earliest signs of COPD. If you’re at risk (remember the section above?) for the disease, get yourself checked out by a healthcare professional.
- Frequent coughing. Coughing is a sign of COPD. It can be a productive cough (with mucus) or an unproductive cough. They key is noticing prolonged irritation of your lungs and airways as the cause of a cough.
- Wheezing. This sign can be audible by the naked ear, or inaudible without a stethoscope. It’s the hallmark sign of constricted airways.
The American Lung Association lists a few signs that tend to be less well-known:
- Frequent respiratory infection. Due to the inflammation in the airways, and the damaged alveoli, it’s not unusual for a person with COPD to have frequent respiratory infections.
- Cyanosis of lips and/or fingernail beds. Damaged alveoli means less oxygen moving throughout the body. This condition is called hypoxia. Cyanosis means the onset of blue-tinged color on your body in specific areas, and is a direct result of hypoxia. This is why lips and fingernail beds can turn blue as a result of COPD.
- Fatigue. General fatigue, and even exhaustion, is also a symptom of COPD. This is another product of hypoxia, where your body is not receiving the oxygen it needs to function at full capacity.
How is COPD Diagnosed?
If you think, or your doctor suspects, you have COPD there are some tests they will run to determine your diagnosis. They cover the basics, and may not tell you what stage/severity you are at. Regardless, they are a good place to start.
The Spirometry test requires you to blow into a large tube that is connected to a smaller machine (the machine is the spirometer). The machine will measure two things: how much air your lungs can hold, and how fast you can blow it out. This diagnostic is a great choice because it can detect COPD before any symptoms are present.
There are surgeries that can be done to minimize the progression or assist in the quality of life associated with COPD. A CT scan can help a doctor determine if you are a candidate for any of these surgeries. It can also screen for lung cancer, a possible complication of COPD.
A chest x-ray has more than one benefit as a diagnostic tool: it can detect emphysema which is one cause of COPD, and it can rule out additional suspected lung issues (like heart failure, another complication of COPD).
Arterial Blood Gas Analysis
The blood gas analysis measures the amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in your blood. It’s an indicator of how well your alveoli are doing their job.
Laboratory testing does not diagnose COPD. The purpose of lab testing is to assess other possible health issues that may seem to be COPD but are not. It can also indicate causes of lung deterioration or even underlying diseases.
What are the treatments for COPD?
While COPD may not be curable, it is manageable. You can still live a wonderfully full life with this disease. Early detection plays a big role in staving off the complications of COPD, but there are also medications designed specifically for severe cases. The Mayo Clinic provides an extensive list of treatments, of which we’ve compiled and condensed here for you.
Steroids biggest selling point is the reduction of inflammation. Because COPD involves inflammation of the lungs, this is a very common recommendation for treatment. Inhaled steroids also aid in preventing the disease from getting worse. It’s most useful when used to reduce frequent problems, however it’s not the “go-to” for moderate COPD stages due to its undesirable side effects including possible bruising and oral infections.
Steroids in pill form, taken orally are used for moderate or severe aggravations of COPD. These are given in short doses. For example, you may be required to take two pills for one week. These short-course doses can help prevent progression of the disease.
These inhalers come stocked with both inhaled steroids and bronchodilators.
Phosphodieterase 4 inhibitors
This is a new drug aimed at treating severe COPD and symptoms of chronic bronchitis. It shows great promise in stopping the progression of COPD through its protein inhibitor.
This is an inexpensive pill you can take to help improve breathing and prevent the disease from getting worse. Low doses are recommended, and your doctor may not prescribe it to you if you’re taking other medications or are at risk for secondary health issues like heart failure.
Believe it or not, even antibiotics made the list! They are used when a patient has a worsening aggravation due to an infection, but recent studies have shown the use of azithromycin may actually prevent the disease from getting worse!
For moderate to severe COPD, lung therapies may improve your quality of life and lengthen your lifespan. In fact, Oxygen Therapy is proven to lengthen lifespan – and there are portable options! There are also Pulmonary Rehab programs. These programs are packaged deals and include education on COPD, exercise training, counseling, and nutrition advice.
Because smoking is the leading cause of COPD, giving up smoking is imperative to stopping the progression of the disease. There are medications available to assist in kicking the habit. Use them! You can only benefit from kicking this habit.
As you can see, COPD is not the end-all-be-all. The diagnosis, or even the notion of having it, can be scary. Try to remember it’s not the end. Millions of people in the U.S. live with varying degrees of COPD. There are early detection options available, and very promising treatments you can try.
Once you have COPD, the goal is to live a full, happy, healthy life. This can be achieved despite having the disease! If you’re having lung issues such as chronic cough, mucus, or even general fatigue after performing daily activities, don’t be afraid to call your healthcare provider. The tests are simple, and the treatment is available.
The outpatient AIRE Program (Accessible Intervention and Respiratory Education) at Orchard Hospital is designed to help you gain knowledge of your lung disease, manage your breathing problems and improve your exercise tolerance. In turn, this will help you to achieve your optimal ability to carry out activities of daily living, regain independence and improve your overall quality of life.
The outpatient AIRE program at Orchard Hospital can help you breathe easier and live better.
Our mission at Orchard Hospital is to provide our community with superior healthcare. We strive to ensure that your experience at Orchard Hospital is as pleasant and comfortable as possible. Our priority is to provide you with the care you need when you need it, with skill, compassion, and respect.