COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is an inflammatory lung disease. It constricts the airways and makes it hard to breathe. COPD is an overarching term that applies to two different lung conditions, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.
Emphysema is an ailment in which the air sacs of the lungs, as well as the walls between them, become damaged and less flexible. This damage causes small airways in the lungs to collapse and trap air, inhibiting the air's ability to be pushed out on an exhale.
Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, where the lining of the airways are irritated and inflamed. This irritation leads to the airways narrowing and the creation of mucus that further blocks the passage. The excess of mucus can cause a chronic cough in the afflicted individual, as they are trying to clear their airways. These two lung conditions usually occur together at varying degrees of severity. COPD is a progressive disease that grows more detrimental over time, but the symptoms can be managed for a better quality of life.
COPD is caused by regular, long-term exposure to airborne irritants that can damage the lungs. These irritants can include cigarette and cigar smoke, either directly or second-hand, air pollution, dust from the environment, or chemical fumes. It is most common in the US to develop COPD from long-term cigarette smoking, but in developing countries, it is more commonly caused by air quality inside and outside the home. In rare cases, the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease occurs due to a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein created in the liver to protect the lungs from diseases. This deficiency can put an individual at risk for future lung conditions that can negatively impact their health.
Symptoms of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can appear gradually, and only once the lungs have been significantly damaged. In addition to the typical symptoms, those afflicted with COPD can also experience exacerbations episodes. These episodes are when the symptoms become more severe than usual for some time. This typically lasts up to several days.
The typical symptoms of COPD can include:
- A feeling of tightness in the chest.
- An excessive amount of mucus production, this mucus could be clear, white, greenish, or yellow.
- Wheezing or squeaking when trying to breathe normally.
- Shortness of breath that tends to happen more frequently during physical activities.
- The inability to take a deep breath.
- A chronic cough that will sometimes produce excess mucus.
- Frequent respiratory infections, such as the cold and flu.
- Swelling of the legs, ankles, or feet.
- Weakness in the lower muscles of the body.
- Lethargy, or a lack of energy.
- Unintended weight loss in the later, more severe stages of the disease.
There are a variety of factors that can put someone at risk for developing COPD. The most significant risk factor is in those that are around second-hand smoke or smoke themselves. This is especially true for long term smokers. It does not matter if it is cigarette, pipe, or cigar smoke, being directly or indirectly around tobacco smoke increases the risk of developing the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Being diagnosed with asthma, a chronic inflammatory airway disease increases the risk of later developing COPD. In asthma suffers, the airways are already inflamed and irritated, so it wouldn't take much more to cause the disease. Workers that work in environments with excessive dust, vapors, or chemical fumes are also more susceptible to COPD due to the irritants they come in contact with, in their occupation. This is also true for those who have poor ventilation in their house and use fuel for cooking or heating their homes.
Doctors can diagnose chronic obstructive pulmonary disease using a test called spirometry. A spirometry test is a standard office test that assesses how well your lungs work by gauging how much air you can inhale, how much air you can exhale, and how quickly you can exhale. The test requires the individual to breathe into a tube that is attached to a spirometer machine. During the test, a nurse or doctor will give you specific instructions on what to do, and the accuracy of the test is dependent on how well you follow those directions. This test is traditionally used to diagnose lung conditions such as COPD, asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Other tests a doctor may order to diagnose the lung disease include a chest X-ray to show if there is emphysema in the lungs, blood tests to measure how well the lungs are bringing oxygen into the blood, and a CT scan to help detect for emphysema and make sure there are no underlying lung cancers.
After a thorough examination, a doctor can draft a treatment plan for the COPD that will suit the patient's needs. This treatment plan can include medications, therapies, and lifestyle changes that the patient can work on to manage their symptoms. Medications prescribed for COPD include bronchodilators, which are used to relax the airway muscles and are typically given in inhaler form. Steroids are sometimes included in the bronchodilator inhaler for more severe symptoms. The steroid is used to reduce inflammation of the airways.
Treatment for COPD can consist of oxygen therapy, which is when the patient is put on supplemental oxygen regularly or only at certain times. This is mostly treatment for more severe symptoms that can cause the patient to have low oxygen levels in the blood. Pulmonary rehabilitation is another form of therapy that is used to improve the health and wellness of the patient. Pulmonary rehabilitation could include a personalized eating and exercise plan, disease management training, and psychological counseling. Lifestyle changes can be done by individuals who suspect they may have lung disease or want to prevent it. The most necessary change is quitting smoking and avoiding places with a lot of second-hand smoke or other lung irritants.