COPD is usually a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and restricts adequate oxygen intake. It is the third leading cause of preventable death in the US.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly referred to as COPD, is a blanket term used to describe a host of medical conditions. These conditions, which may include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, restrict airway function in the lungs through inflammation and thickening of the airways. Eventually, the body cannot get enough oxygen to function normally, as lung tissue is often irreparably damaged.
Who Gets COPD?
COPD is almost always related to smoking. It is estimated that over 80% of cases are related to the smoking of tobacco products (American Lung Association). In some cases, exposure to environmental contaminants may lead to COPD. These contaminants may include secondhand smoke from tobacco products, exhaust from motor vehicles, and industrial chemicals. In rare cases, an inherited form of COPD known as Alpha-1 deficiency emphysema may be to blame.
Estimates indicate that 11 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, but over 24 million people may be affected. Most of these people do not even realize they have a chronic health condition. This is due, in part, to the fact that COPD symptoms are similar to those of other, often less severe, illnesses. Misinterpreting symptoms often leads to a delay in diagnosis. Because of this, many patients have more advanced stages of disease by the time they can begin treatment.
COPD rarely affects people under the age of 35, with most sufferers being diagnosed in their 50’s or later.
What Are the Symptoms of COPD?
Common symptoms of COPD may include shortness of breath during physical activity, a persistent cough with phlegm, fatigue, production of excess phlegm, blue lips and nail beds, wheezing, and recurrent or prolonged respiratory infections. Sufferers may experience one or all of these symptoms.
As disease progresses, symptoms will typically worsen over time. Lung tissue becomes damaged, and breathing becomes more and more labored.
How is COPD Diagnosed?
If COPD is suspected, there are several tests which may be used to determine the cause of symptoms. Patients may be asked to breathe into a spirometer, which measures airflow output. This will determine how much air volume patients can supply within one minute, and overall. Measurements are compared to normal readings in a patient’s age group to determine if airways are obstructed.
Additional tests may also be necessary. Patients may have to measure airflow over the course of several days to ensure asthma isn’t the cause of symptoms. A chest X-ray may also be performed for doctors to get a visual reading of the lungs.
How is COPD Treated?
Treatment options for COPD will depend on the symptoms present and the stage of illness. For most patients, a nebulizer and/or inhaler will be used to administer medications directly to the lungs in order to open airways and prevent inflammation. Those with severe cases may require oxygen therapy. This may be needed at all times, only at night, or only during periods of physical activity.
Patients should also receive therapy to help them manage their lifestyles with COPD. This may include teaching alterations for performing physical activities as well as emotional support.
Those who smoke tobacco products should be offered assistance in quitting. This is the single most important thing patients can do to slow the progression of disease.
What is the Prognosis for COPD?
With modern medications, some individuals can live for many years with COPD. The length and quality of life will depend largely on the patient’s overall health, age, how early the disease is diagnosed, and whether the patient continues to use tobacco products. Those who quit smoking maintain their health longer than those who continue using tobacco.
There is no cure for COPD, and it is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. (American Lung Association). Most of these deaths are preventable, as the majority of cases are directly related to smoking tobacco products.