What is COPD? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the general term for a group of lung diseases that restrict breathing by blocking airflow to the lungs. The two main diseases associated with COPD are emphysema and asthmatic bronchitis. Most people with COPD have a combination of emphysema and asthmatic bronchitis. Symptoms of COPD usually don’t show up until the disease has already caused significant lung damage.
The most common symptoms of COPD are shortness of breath, chronic coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest. Advanced COPD can lead to respiratory failure. COPD affects more than 12 million people in the United States, making it the third leading cause of death in the country. Since COPD is a slowly progressing disease it is most commonly diagnosed in people middle-aged and older.
What causes COPD?
The leading cause of COPD is smoking. Cigarette smoke irritates and inflames the lung’s airways, gradually damaging the air sacs inside the lungs that provide oxygen to the blood. The damage to these air sacs limits air flow in and out of the lungs. As the air sacs become more severely damaged by smoke intake, the harder it is for the air to be inhaled and exhaled. In addition to damaging the lung’s air sacs, smoke also causes mucus to build up in the airways, further narrowing the airways and causing coughing fits associated with COPD. While smoking is the most common cause of COPD, nonsmokers can also get the disease from inhaling pollutants in the air such as chemical fumes and industrial dust. It is not uncommon for people who work in the coal mining industry to develop COPD.
Common treatments for COPD:
COPD has no cure and not reversible. Treatments aim to make people with COPD more comfortable and more able to lead an active lifestyle. The first and most important step to treating COPD is (when applicable) to quit smoking. No amount of treatment will help if a person with COPD continues to smoke and the disease will only worsen. Likewise, people who work in profession where they are exposed to air pollutants (coal miners and industrial workers) should find ways to restrict dust inhalation. The most common medications used to treat COPD are bronchodilators, and inhaled steroids. Bronchodilators relax the muscles around the airways and usually come in the form of an inhaler. Bronchodilators relieve shortness of breath and coughing, making breathing easier.
Inhaled steroids are usually prescribed to people with moderate to severe symptoms of COPD. Corticosteroids are inhaled to reduce inflammation but prolonged use may weaken bones while increasing a person’s risk of developing diabetes, cataracts, and high blood pressure. Oxygen therapy can help people with severe COPD be more active during the day and sleep better at night. With oxygen therapy, oxygen is breathed through a mask or nasal prongs. Surgery is a possible treatment for some people with COPD, but is usually a last resort treatment. With surgery, either part of the lung is removed or, with very severe cases, a lung transplant may be performed.