What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) isn’t one singular disease. It actually refers to a group of respiratory diseases—such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and sometimes even asthma—that become progressively worse over time. COPD obstructs airflow, making it difficult to breathe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and the American Lung Association estimates that over 12 million people have COPD with up to 12 million more people not having a diagnosis. Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. It cannot be reversed even with medications, and it becomes worse over time.
November is COPD Awareness Month, so we at Meritage Medical Network want to take some time to provide you with the information you need to understand and prevent COPD. Read on to learn more.
Causes of COPD
As if you didn’t already have a reason to avoid smoking, one of the leading causes of COPD is exposure to tobacco smoke. In fact, about 25% of chronic smokers develop COPD, and the vast majority of COPD sufferers (between 80 and 90%) are or were smokers. Another potential cause of COPD is a genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAt). However, AAt accounts for only about 1 percent of COPD cases. Other risk factors for COPD include:
- Exposure to smoking (tobacco and marijuana)
- Smokers with asthma
- Occupational exposure to airway irritants (dusts, chemical fumes, vapors)
- Age (being over 35 years old)
COPD Symptoms and Diagnosis
Because a wide range of conditions fall under the category of COPD, symptoms are varied and unique to individuals. However, common symptoms of COPD are:
- Shortness of breath
- Chronic cough
- Chest tightness
A COPD diagnoses is based on a person’s symptoms, medical history, and test results. If it is suspected that you have COPD, a doctor will perform a lung function test to determine how well you are able to move air in and out of your lungs and how much oxygen your lungs are delivering to your body. Your doctor may also order a chest x-ray or chest CT scan to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. A blood gas test measures the amount of oxygen in the blood and may be performed to determine whether or not oxygen therapy will be needed.
If you are diagnosed with COPD, The World Health Organization has outlined 4 main steps you can take to manage your condition:
- Assess and monitor the disease. In other words, determine the severity of the condition through lung function tests.
- Reduce risk factors. Avoid triggers and yes, that means you need to quit smoking. If quitting smoking seems too daunting, take it one step at a time by first calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW for resources to help. Also limit or eliminate exposure to air pollutants (indoor and outdoor), dusts, and chemical fumes.
- Manage stable COPD. Determine your medication regime with your doctor. Exercise training programs may also be considered to help manage fatigue. Oxygen therapy may be necessary if you’re in chronic respiratory failure.
- Manage exacerbations. Again avoid triggers – pollution and infections are the most common cause of COPD exacerbations. Once exacerbated, you will most likely need to use bronchodilators (inhalers) and/or oral steroids to increase the airflow back to your lungs.
As a progressive disease that depletes the body of oxygen and can cause physical exhaustion, COPD can be isolating. If you or a loved one has COPD, the American Lung Association offers support. Call 1-800-LUNGUSA to find a support group near you.
American Lung Association. (2015). Lung health and diseases: COPD. American Lung Association. Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). 10 leading causes of death by age group, United States – 2013 [Chart]. CDC. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/images/lc-charts/leading_causes_of_death_by_age_group_2013-a.gif
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2015, July 21). Diseases and conditions: COPD. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/definition/con-20032017
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2013, July 31). How is COPD diagnosed? NIH. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/diagnosis
World Health Organization. (2015). COPD management. WHO. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/respiratory/copd/management/en/