COPD at a glance

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes breathing problems for millions of Americans. Not only is it in the top five leading causes of death in the U.S., but also it can be tricky to treat. Depending on the type of COPD a patient has, like emphysema or chronic bronchitis, it can cause damage to their lungs and obstruct their airways, making it difficult to breathe and participate in everyday activities.

How does COPD work?

Our lungs have tiny, elastic air sacs called alveoli. In healthy lungs, breathing in causes the alveoli to inflate, and breathing out makes them deflate. With COPD, this process gets more difficult. Emphysema causes damage to the walls of the alveoli and restricts them from expanding and filling with air. Chronic bronchitis results from continuous inflammation and irritation of the lining around the airways; the mucus that is usually found in the lungs thickens and makes it more difficult to breathe adequately. Most people with COPD generally have both variations, but the conditions usually vary from person to person.

Causes of COPD

Scientists found that the leading cause of COPD was smoking, which accounts for up to seven out of every ten cases of COPD and its related deaths. Smoking causes an increase in the cells that produce mucus within the lungs, making the quantity and viscosity of the mucus increase. The lungs are thus not able to effectively remove the excess mucus, resulting in the chronic cough often associated with COPD. Additionally, smoking damages the cilia, broom-like hair found on cells, further preventing the excess mucus from being transported out of the lungs. The myriad of chemicals found in cigarettes also induces irritation in the lungs and leads to chronic coughing. Genetics, exposure to tobacco smoke, and occupational exposure to dusts and chemicals can also be risk factors for COPD.

Symptoms of COPD

COPD is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. A few symptoms of COPD include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath during everyday activities
  • Fatigue

Some people with COPD also frequently suffer from respiratory infections and cyanosis (blueness of the skin due to poor circulation). Doctors can use several different tests to diagnose COPD, including spirometry and CT scans.

COPD treatments

People diagnosed with COPD have a few options to alleviate the symptoms, but scientists have yet to find a permanent cure. If applicable, the first step in the treatment plan for COPD is to quit smoking, which decreases the progression of COPD. Additionally, a physician may prescribe medicine to help manage symptoms.

One class of medications are bronchodilators that generally come in the form of inhalers. These are used to relax the muscles around the airways and can help relieve coughing and shortness of breath. Inhaled steroids and phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors are other, approved options to reduce the inflammation in the airways and prevent further irritation.

For patients with more severe cases of COPD, physicians may opt for various lung therapies to assist with their symptoms. Some people are placed on oxygen therapy to provide supplemental oxygen throughout strenuous activities or during sleep. Additionally, pulmonary rehabilitation programs are used to combine exercise training, nutritional advice, education, and counseling to increase a patient’s ability to participate in everyday activities. Some research also supports the use of a bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) to decrease the retention of carbon dioxide in the blood, which is associated with acute respiratory failure.

For people with severe emphysema who aren’t helped sufficiently through medication, surgery can be an option. Lung volume reduction surgery can be used to remove small pieces of damaged lung tissues to allow the remaining, healthier lung tissues to expand. Another surgical method includes lung transplants where the damaged lungs are replaced with healthy, donor lungs. This surgery is associated with significant risks, including the risk of organ rejection and the necessity to take immune-suppressing medications.

All in all, there are a few things you can do to decrease your risk of developing COPD. It is essential that COPD is diagnosed as soon as possible as to prevent further damage to the lungs. The first and most important step you can take is to quit smoking. This not only drastically reduces the chance of developing COPD, but also many other cardiovascular diseases.