Understanding COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a lung disease that makes breathing difficult. While a COPD diagnosis can be scary, it is manageable with proper treatment. In this article, we will discuss the various symptoms, causes, prevention, and stages of COPD to help you better understand this disease.

Overview

COPD is an overarching term that includes three separate diseases: chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. With chronic bronchitis, the airways in your lungs become inflamed and usually secrete extra mucus. With emphysema, the small air sacs in your lungs lose their integrity, making it difficult to breathe in and out regularly. Finally, the asthma component of COPD is characterized by airway tightening that does not respond well to typical asthma treatments. Any of these diseases can make breathing difficult.

Understanding COPD - Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema

Symptoms

Before we discuss the common symptoms of COPD, it’s worth noting that these symptoms are somewhat general and can be present in other health concerns. The best thing to do is look for patterns in your health and recognize when these symptoms are becoming more frequent or intense and discuss these findings with your doctor.

The symptoms of COPD may take many years to progress and may eventually worsen in cases with and without adequate treatment. Here are the common symptoms that characterize COPD:

1. Wheezing
Wheezing is a whistling sound heard during exhalation due to airway inflammation and mucus buildup.

2. Shortness of Breath
If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, you might feel “winded” much quicker than before. Performing regular exercises or daily activities can make you more fatigued when you’re not able to catch your breath.

3. Persistent Cough
The common phrase “smoker’s lung” is the colloquial way to describe a persistent cough that usually affects people with COPD.

4. Accessory Muscle Use
This symptom is more of a clinical sign for healthcare providers to recognize, but you might experience progressive muscle soreness due to the overuse of your breathing muscles (AKA accessory muscles). This soreness might occur in your chest, neck, and back areas.

5. Bluish Skin
In serious cases of COPD, you might notice a bluish color to your skin in your nailbeds, lips, or nose. This color change is a sign that your body is not receiving enough oxygen and requires immediate medical treatment.

There are other methods your provider can use to determine whether you have COPD or not. If you notice any of these symptoms occurring more frequently or with higher intensity, talk to your provider so they can investigate further.

Causes

The single most significant risk for COPD is smoking. Up to 75% of COPD patients have a history of smoking. This number includes active smokers as well as people affected by second-hand smoke.

Another risk factor for COPD is pollution. We tend to think of pollution only as industrial or urban pollution, but even household products and various chemicals can irritate the lungs enough to cause damage if used frequently. Some household irritants include bleach and floor cleaner fumes, wood dust, animal dander, and cooking fumes.

Infectious diseases can also trigger a cascade of effects that lead to lung damage, and possibly COPD later down the line. For example, a severe case of pneumonia that requires breathing support in the hospital might eventually cause lung damage—depending on the severity.

Finally, there is a small subset of patients who are diagnosed with COPD due to genetic factors. People with Alpha–1 Antitrypsin Deficiency lack a protein called Alpha–1 Antitrypsin from the liver, which can eventually lead to lung damage. The risk is higher if the patient also smokes.

Prevention

One of the most effective ways to prevent COPD is to quit smoking. The vast majority of people diagnosed with COPD were also smokers or were exposed to second-hand smoke regularly. Whether you’re actively smoking or have regular exposure to second-hand smoke, the best decision for your long-term health is to quit smoking and find a way to avoid second-hand smoke exposure.

Another way to prevent COPD is to wear proper face masks when you know you’ll be exposed to various pollutants. Many people mistakenly disregard the importance of wearing a mask to protect your lungs, but not doing so can put you at risk for COPD later on in life. If you’re going to be cleaning your floors, cutting wood, or working on the farm, you should consider getting a face mask to protect your lungs, or consider working in a well-ventilated area.

Finally, doing your best to protect yourself from infectious diseases will help you avoid the risk of any potential lung damage associated with infection. Simple things like taking a vitamin C supplement regularly, avoiding areas where you know others will be sick, and washing your hands often can dramatically reduce your risk of infection. As always, be sure to inquire with your doctor before taking any new supplements or beginning any new health-related activities.

The Stages of COPD

If you have already been diagnosed with COPD, you may be wondering how the progression of this disease looks for most people. There are four identifiable stages of COPD that can help you and your individual physician to determine your current lung function and the best course of treatment:

  1. Mild COPD
  2. Moderate COPD
  3. Severe COPD
  4. Very Severe COPD

The characteristics of these four stages range from having very little awareness of the disease to requiring continuous oxygen to avoid life-threatening drops in blood oxygen levels.

During the diagnosis phase, your physician may ask you to take a test called a pulmonary function test to determine precise measurements of your lung function. Depending on these results, and also a thorough review of your daily symptoms, your diagnosis will be classified by one of the four stages.
Your treatment plan will vary based on your stage and your symptoms.

Final Thoughts

COPD is a significant, lung disease that affects many people worldwide. There are many risk factors, some of which we can control, and others that are a challenge to avoid. However, education about the disease empowers you to maintain a healthy lifestyle while managing the symptoms of the disease.

Information on this page is for reference and educational purposes only. For more information about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), talk to your doctor or primary care provider.

Page last updated: October 2, 2018

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About Scott Ridl: Scott joined American Medical Sales and Rentals in 2008 as a Web Manager and Content Writer. He is a writer and designer. He is extensively trained on oxygen therapy products from leading manufacturers such as Inogen, Respironics, Chart, Invacare, ResMed and more. Scott works closely with respiratory therapists and oxygen specialists to educate the community about oxygen therapy products, COPD, asthma and lung diseases. He writes weekly columns and is passionate about educating the community on oxygen therapy and respiratory issues.

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