Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD

COPD refers to a set of diseases that all involve compromised airflow and breathing function. Emphysema, certain types of asthma, and chronic bronchitis fall under the COPD label. Typical symptoms of shortness of breath, excess mucus, and chest tightness effect the estimated 13 million Americans suffering from COPD. Due to damage to the respiratory system, bronchial tubes, bronchioles and lung alveoli all lose elasticity in cases of COPD, which results in the death of over 130,000 people each year in this country alone. However, while there is no cure, treatments exist that prolong life, in addition to improving quality of life.

COPD is an “umbrella” term used to describe several diseases involving the restriction of airflow to the lungs.1 Several illnesses that cause problems with breathing and blockage of airflow fall under the COPD umbrella, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and, in certain cases, asthma.2

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis have taken their toll for years, especially in middle age and older individuals. Of all the millions of people ever diagnosed in the U.S. with emphysema, an overwhelming percentage (over 90 percent) was above the age of 45. Furthermore, people over the age of 65 have the highest chronic bronchitis rates.3 In 2010, 134,676 people in the United States alone died from COPD. As of 2011, an estimated 13 million Americans had COPD. Unfortunately, the condition is likely underdiagnosed, meaning that the actual number of people suffering from it may be much greater.4

One of the most common first symptoms leading to a diagnosis of COPD is producing and coughing up excess mucus. Most people also experience a chronic shortness of breath. Other symptoms of COPD include a feeling of tightness in the chest, wheezing, and a tendency to catch colds or the flu repeatedly.5

In the human respiratory system, the windpipe leads into the lungs’ bronchial tubes. Those, in turn, branch out into much smaller tubes called bronchioles. At the end of each bronchiole are the alveoli, which are tiny, round air sacs. The sacs have capillaries running through their walls, which take oxygen into the blood running through them, while also discharging carbon dioxide for the lungs to exhale.

In a healthy lung, the bronchial tubes, bronchioles, and alveoli are pliable, elastic, and stretchy. With COPD, the elasticity of all those things decreases. Additionally, airways walls thicken, swell, and produce excess mucus. The Alveoli may also be destroyed. The result is less air flowing through the airways.6

The primary cause of COPD is smoking. Poor air quality, occupational exposures, socioeconomic status and even numerous childhood respiratory illnesses also play a part in the chance of developing COPD. In terms of genetics, AAT, or Alpha1 antitrypsin deficiency, causes a small number of emphysema cases (2-3%), mostly in people of northern European ancestry.7 Nonetheless, the true culprit, in most cases, is smoking.

Many people live with COPD.  While there is no cure, treatments can make life easier, including maintaining at least some regular activities, albeit such activities must be taken slowly. However, being aware of COPD triggers is very important. For many, avoiding conditions likely to worsen the condition plays a large part in averting emergencies.

  • Smoking cessation
  • Avoiding second-hand smoke
  • Staying away from chemical fumes, such as paints or insecticides
  • Staying indoors, with the windows shut, on days with poor air quality ratings8

Living a full life despite COPD requires attention to the health of the entire body. That means regular doctor visits, taking prescribed medications, and getting appropriate immunizations, such as the flu shot.9

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Organizations

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Glossary

alveolus air sac where gas exchange takes place.
angina chest pain.
aorta blood vessel that delivers oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle to the body; it is the largest blood vessel in the body.
apex top portion of the upper lobes of the lungs.
atrium one of the two receiving chambers of the heart.
base bottom portion of lower lobes, located just above the diaphragm.
blood pressure pressure of blood against the walls of a blood vessel or heart chamber.
bronchiolitis inflammation that involves the bronchioles (small airways).
bronchoscopy the examination of the bronchi (the main airways of the lungs) using a flexible tube (bronchoscope). Bronchoscopy helps to evaluate and diagnose lung problems, assess blockages, obtain samples of tissue and/or fluid, and/or to help remove a foreign body.
bronchus large airways; lung divides into right and left bronchi.
cardiac output total amount of blood being pumped by the heart over a particular period of time.
catheter thin, flexible medical tube; one use is to insert it into a blood vessel to measure blood pressure.
constrict tighten; narrow.
cyanosis bluish color in the skin because of insufficient oxygen.
diaphragm primary muscle used for respiration, located just below the lung bases.
diastolic pressure lowest pressure to which blood pressure falls between contractions of the ventricles.
dilate relax; expand.
dyspnea sensation of difficulty in breathing.
edema swelling due to the buildup of fluid.
endothelial cells the delicate lining, only one cell thick, of the organs of circulation.
expiration exhaling; giving off carbon dioxide.
heartbeat one complete contraction of the heart.
hyperactive describes a situation in which a body tissue is especially likely to have an exaggerated reaction to a particular situation.
hypertension abnormally high blood pressure.
hypotension abnormally low blood pressure.
inspiration inhaling; taking in oxygen.
lobectomy removal of an entire lobe of the lung.
lung volume the amount of air the lungs hold.
mean blood pressure average blood pressure, taking account of the rise and fall that occurs with each heartbeat. It is often estimated by multiplying the diastolic pressure by two, adding the systolic pressure, and then dividing this sum by three.
palpitation sensation of rapid heartbeats.
perfusion flow.
pleura membrane that covers the outside of the lung.
pneumonectomy removal of an entire lung.
pulmonary artery blood vessel delivering oxygen-poor blood from the right ventricle to the lungs.
pulmonary hypertension abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.
smooth muscle muscle that performs automatic tasks, such as constricting blood vessels.
spirogram record of the amounts of air being moved in and out of the lungs.
syncope fainting; temporary loss of consciousness.
systemic relating to a process that affects the body generally; in this instance, the way in which blood is supplied through the aorta to all body organs except the lungs.
systolic pressure the highest pressure to which blood pressure rises with the contraction of the ventricles.
vasodilator agent that widens blood vessels.
ventilation movement of air (gases) in and out of the lungs.
ventricle one of the two pumping chambers of the heart; right ventricle receives oxygen-poor blood from the right atrium and pumps it to the lungs through the pulmonary artery; left ventricle receives oxygen-rich blood from the left atrium and pumps it to the body through the aorta.