All You Need to Know About Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common lung disease that makes breathing hard.

There are two primary forms of COPD:

  • Chronic bronchitis (involves long-term cough with mucus)
  • Emphysema (damage to the air sacs in the lungs responsible for uptake of oxygen from atmosphere)

Smoking is considered the primary cause of COPD. The more an individual smokes, the more the condition is likely to develop. However, there are also many people that smoke for years and never get COPD. In some rare cases, individuals who don’t smoke but lack the protein alpha-1 antitrypsin can develop emphysema.

Some of the most common risk factors for COPD include:

  • Exposure to smoke, certain fumes or gases
  • Exposure to heavy amounts of pollution and secondhand smoke
  • Frequent use of cooking fire (without the right ventilation)

Symptoms that might point to COPD include:

  • Fatigue
  • Cough (with or without mucus)
  • Wheezing
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Difficulty catching one’s breath
  • Loss of weight
  • Respiratory infections

Since most of the symptoms will develop gradually, many people may not even be aware they have COPD.

A lung function test known as spirometry is deemed the best test for COPD. The test will involve blowing out air from your lungs as hard as possible after taking a deep breath into a small machine. Primarily, the test is done to test the patient’s lung capacity. The results can also be checked right away.

 

Listening to the lungs using a stethoscope can also be done. However, there are cases when the lung sounds can appear normal even when the individual is already suffering from COPD.

 

Imaging tests like CT scans and X-rays may also be required. With an X-ray, there is still the possibility of the lung appearing normal even if the patient has COPD. A CT scan however will typically show signs of the condition.

 

In other cases, a blood test known as arterial blood gas is carried out to measure the amounts of carbon dioxide and oxygen present in the blood. If your doctor suspects you have an alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a blood test may also be ordered to validate the suspicion.

There is no known cure for COPD. However, there are things that can be done to keep the disease from getting worse and to relieve the symptoms. If you are a smoker, quitting is one of the best ways you can slow down lung damage. Normal healthy people also lose their lung capacity every year as they grow old. However, this reduction is much more in those who smoke.

 

Some medications that might be given to COPD patients include:

  • Control drugs (to minimize lung inflammation)
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs (to reduce swelling in the airways)
  • Quick-relief drugs (to open the airways)
  • Certain long-term antibiotics

During flare-ups or in severe cases, the following may be prescribed:

  • Steroids (oral or given intravenously)
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Bronchodilators through a nebulizer
  • Assistance from a machine

Since infections can make COPD worse, antibiotics may be given during flare-ups. If there is a low level of oxygen in the blood, you may need oxygen therapy at home.

 

Pulmonary rehabilitation won’t cure COPD. However, it can provide patients with more insights about the condition and train them to breathe in a different way so they will feel better, remain active, and function at the highest level possible. Leg exercises are preferred over arm exercises for their greater benefit.

There are several things patients with COPD can do daily to protect their lungs, stay healthy, and keep the condition from getting worse.

 

Walking (to build up strength)

  • Check with your doctor how far you can walk
  • Slowly increase the distance as you go along
  • When walking, avoid talking especially if you experience shortness of breath
  • When breathing out, used pursed lip breathing

Other Tips

  • Avoid extreme weather (very hot or very cold)
  • Ensure you don’t go anywhere near someone who smokes
  • Minimize air pollution by not using the fireplace
  • Get rid of possible irritants at home
  • Use oxygen (when advised for you)
  • Manage your mood and stress accordingly

It can also help if you eat healthy foods including poultry, lean meat, and fruits and vegetables. If you find it hard to keep your weight up, check with your doctor if seeing a dietitian is a good idea.

 

In some cases, surgery may be done to treat the condition. However, only a few benefit from surgical treatments.

  • Surgery is done to remove parts of the diseased lung
  • Lung transplant (very severe cases)

People with COPD might develop other health problems such as:

  • Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Heart failure (secondary to chronic lung disease)
  • Pneumonia
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Severe malnutrition and weight loss
  • Debilitation
  • Increased anxiety

When you visit your doctor, expect that you will be asked some questions. It is important that you know the answers to the questions so your doctor can make an accurate diagnosis.

 

It would also be helpful to also have a list of questions you can ask your doctor so you are aware of what you’ll be dealing with.

 

Some of the possible questions your doctor will ask include:

  • Do you smoke?
  • Are you exposed to secondhand smoke regularly?
  • Do you work around pollutants like dust?
  • Do you cough up mucus? What color is it?
  • Do you get short of breath easily?
  • What symptoms are you experiencing?
  • What makes you feel better/worse?
  • Does anyone else in the family have COPD?
  • Are you getting treatment for other medical conditions?
  • What medications or supplements are you taking?
  • Have you taken beta-blockers?

Questions you should ask your doctor

 

Make a list of things you would like to know. Questions you can ask can include the following:

  • Do I have COPD?
  • Do I have bronchitis, emphysema, or both?
  • Will I get better?
  • What treatment is ideal for me?
  • What else can I do to feel better?

Stress, depression, and anxiety are common among people with COPD and these can increase as the condition progresses. It would be helpful to talk and share your concerns with your family, friends, and healthcare team.

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