Have you or someone you love been suffering from shortness of breath, making it difficult to take part in normal daily activities? While you may shrug it off as just a symptom of getting older, it’s important to discuss these symptoms with your doctor, as they may be the result of a much more severe problem called COPD.
COPD is a chronic lung disease that is the third leading cause of death by disease in the United States. Over 16.4 million people have been diagnosed and millions more may have it without knowing. Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD yet, but it is treatable, so early detection is key. For COPD Awareness Month, we’re covering the causes, symptoms, and treatments of this fortunately preventable disease.
What is COPD?
COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It is sometimes also referred to as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, as most people with COPD will have symptoms of both conditions. What happens with COPD is that the airways in your lungs become inflamed and enlarged. The tissue where oxygen is exchanged is then destroyed, which decreases the flow of air in and out of your lungs. Less oxygen is able to get into your body tissues, making it harder to get rid of carbon dioxide. The worse it gets, the harder it is to breathe and remain active.
Causes of COPD
As COPD is a lung disease, it may come as no surprise that most risk factors of COPD are related to breathing in polluted air and smoke. Smoking cigarettes is the biggest cause of COPD, making up 85-90% of cases, but exposure to air pollution, breathing in secondhand smoke, and working with chemicals, dust, and fumes are also potential causes of COPD. Therefore, the best ways to prevent COPD are to not smoke cigarettes, avoid secondhand smoke, protect yourself from breathing in chemicals, dust, and fumes, and fight for clean air in your community.
Other causes of COPD include a rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 deficiency, in which the body is unable to produce the Alpha-1 protein that protects the lungs, and a personal history of childhood respiratory infection. These causes are less preventable, but also thankfully less common.
Complications from COPD
COPD can cause additional health problems, including:
- Respiratory infections. People with COPD are much more likely to catch a cold, the flu, or pneumonia, making it even more difficult to breathe.
- Heart problems. COPD increases your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
- Lung cancer. COPD increases your risk of developing lung cancer.
- High blood pressure in lung arteries. COPD can cause high blood pressure in the arteries that bring blood to your lungs, which is called pulmonary hypertension.
- Depression. As with any serious illness, depression is a risk with COPD. Shortness of breath can keep you from performing daily activities you enjoy.
Symptoms & Diagnosis of COPD
People often overlook the symptoms of COPD or blow them off as nothing serious until it has advanced to later stages of the disease. Unfortunately, COPD can be fatal, so these symptoms should not be ignored. And while it is not curable, early detection is key for successful treatment.
If you experience any of the following symptoms or think you might be at risk, make an appointment with your doctor.
- Chronic cough
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Chest tightness
- Blueness of lips or nails
- Producing a lot of phlegm
- Weight loss
- Swelling of ankles, feet, or legs
When talking to your doctor about your risk for COPD, be prepared to discuss the following:
- Any symptoms listed above
- Your smoking history
- Exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemicals, or dust
- Family members who have had COPD
In order to make a diagnosis, your doctor may also order various tests such as:
- Lung (pulmonary) function tests. The most common lung function test is called spirometry, during which you blow into a large tube connected to a small machine to measure the amount of air you can inhale and exhale.
- Chest X-ray. An X-ray can show emphysema as well as rule out other lung or heart problems.
- CT scan. CT scans can also show emphysema as well as help determine if surgery is necessary and screen for lung cancer.
- Arterial blood gas analysis. This tests how well your lungs are taking in oxygen and removing carbon dioxide.
- Laboratory tests. Lab tests aren’t used for diagnosing COPD, but can help determine the cause of your symptoms or rule out other health conditions.
Treatment for COPD
As mentioned, there is currently no cure for COPD, but thankfully it is treatable. Here are some treatment plans you may want to explore with your physician:
Not all patients diagnosed with COPD will experience the same symptoms, nor will one medication work for everyone. It is important to talk to your doctor and create the best plan for your particular symptoms and needs. Taking the right medicine at the right time will help you to breathe better and have fewer flare-ups.
There are ways to rebuild strength and get back to enjoying daily activities through pulmonary rehabilitation programs. These programs often combine education, exercise training, nutrition advice, and counseling.
Oxygen is vital, but with COPD, it is difficult to get oxygen to your lungs without some help. You may consider getting a portable oxygen tank so that you can continue to do the daily tasks and activities you enjoy without struggling to breathe.
In severe cases, doctors may suggest lung surgery to help with breathing. This is typically for people who struggle to breathe all the time and is not recommended for everyone with COPD.
Palliative care is a medical specialty that focuses on improving the quality of life of COPD patients. It is available from the moment of diagnosis, treating symptoms, pain, and stress that comes with having a disease such as COPD.
While being diagnosed with COPD will change your life and may seem scary, there are ways to manage it and live with it. Talk to your doctor about the best treatment options for you and seek support from others with COPD. The American Lung Association has many great resources for finding support. And as always, if you find yourself in an emergency, your Best Neighbors Ever are just down the road providing extraordinary adult and pediatric care, 24/7/365.