COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a condition that damages the lungs and causes difficulty breathing. If the disease goes untreated, it can become painful and uncomfortable, and it can interfere with your day-to-day life.
COPD occurs as a mix of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes. It also usually causes an increase in mucus production, which results in difficulty breathing. Emphysema is a condition in which the air sacs in the lungs can’t expand to take in enough air.
Smoking is almost always the cause of COPD. The smoke irritates the airways in the lungs, which results in either chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke can also sometimes cause COPD. Some people who are exposed to other fumes, dust, or pollution develop the condition. The disease develops slowly over time, and it usually takes years for smoke or pollutants to cause severe damage to the lungs, so most people who are diagnosed are over the age of 60.
Symptoms of COPD
Your COPD symptoms may be mild at first, but they usually get worse over time without treatment. The most common symptom is a chronic, long-lasting cough, usually accompanied by coughing up mucus. You may have to clear your throat and chest of mucus every morning if you have COPD. Coughing and mucus are usually considered mild or stage 1 symptoms of the disease.
The most common moderate or stage 2 symptom is shortness of breath, especially after exercise or physical activity. This occurs because the bronchial tubes and air sacs can’t fully fill up with air. You may have severe COPD if you feel shortness of breath during day-to-day activities like getting dressed, cooking, or doing other household tasks. Some people with COPD feel like they can never fully catch their breath.
You may also experience wheezing, or a whistling or squeaking sound when you breathe in along with a feeling of tightness in your chest and lungs. This is a result of trying to breathe from narrow airways, and it can sometimes be an indicator of an infection.
Coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath are the most universal symptoms of COPD. Some people also experience:
- Cyanosis, or a blue tint to the lips and fingernails from lack of oxygen
- Fatigue or loss of stamina
- Swollen feet, legs, or ankles
Treatments for COPD
Damage to the lungs from COPD can’t be reversed, but further damage can be prevented with a variety of treatments and medications. If the disease is caused by smoking, the most effective treatment will be to quit smoking.
You can also use medications to control coughing and breathing issues. Bronchodilators are taken in an inhaler and relax the muscles that surround the airways, which reduces coughing and relieves shortness of breath.
Your doctor may recommend long-acting bronchodilators, short-acting bronchodilators, or both. Long-acting bronchodilators are for general daily use and usually only need to be taken once or twice a day. They help treat COPD symptoms over a long period of time. The most common long-acting bronchodilators are:
Short-acting bronchodilators are meant for short-term relief. You can take them right before any strenuous activities that may result in shortness of breath. The most common short-acting bronchodilators are:
Your doctor may also recommend corticosteroids, which help to reduce inflammation. Two common corticosteroids for COPD are fluticasone, which is taken in an inhaler once or twice a day, and budesonide, which can come as a powder, a liquid, or in an inhaler. You could also use a combined inhaler, which uses bronchodilators and corticosteroids.
In addition to medications for COPD, you can try therapies to help control the symptoms. If your lungs can’t take in enough oxygen, you can use oxygen therapy to provide you supplemental oxygen. Some people only use this while sleeping, and other people carry lightweight units with them for extra oxygen.
You can also try a pulmonary rehab program, in which doctors can teach you techniques to help you breathe more easily and reduce coughing. Specialists will provide you with exercise training, nutritional advice, and other information that can help you control your COPD. These programs sometimes include a short period of hospitalization.
If you have very severe COPD and medications or therapy don’t help, surgery may be an option. Some COPD patients undergo a lung volume reduction surgery where surgeons remove some of the damaged lung tissue. This gives the healthy tissue more space to expand.
Latest COPD Treatment Options
One of the newest treatments for COPD that has been approved by the FDA is Stiolto Respimat. This drug combines two existing COPD medications that have complementary effects with each other into a once-a-day inhaler.
People with COPD have narrowed airways that may be damaged or have blockage. Expanding these airways lets oxygen penetrate the lungs deeper, where the blood stream can absorb it and carry it to the rest of the body.
Studies on COPD showed that combining two drugs together can have a positive effect. One of the drugs used in the new medication is Tiotropium, which targets the nerves in the lungs that constrict the muscles. Once the targeted nerves have been blocked, the muscles in the chest are able to relax, which allows the airways to expand.
Olodaterol is the second drug in the latest COPD therapy. It works with Tiotropium by activating the body’s adrenaline system. This flushes open the airways. New COPD research shows that without the tension in the muscles around the airways, the airways are able to expand a greater amount. This drug acts quickly, offering patients relief within minutes.
This dual combination is a potent fighter of COPD and has a fast onset of action. It also has additional benefits for lung function. Studies on COPD have shown that this drug combination is able to produce greatly improved outcomes in comparison to using one drug or the other by itself.
Several existing medications only have one or the other drug, along with a steroid to reduce swelling. This is not as effective as the two drugs together.
The new medication comes in the form of an inhaler, which is used once a day. New COPD research led to the invention of the inhaler itself, because unlike previous inhalers that released medicine quickly at a high rate of pressure, this inhaler releases the medicine slowly over 1.5 seconds, which lets patients inhale the entire dose easily into their lungs.
This new medication is one of many medications for COPD, and may lead to the discovery of new medications. Continuously coming up with new medications that are slightly different types of molecules than the drugs that are on the market helps give doctors and patients options. A patient may be looking for a new drug that is easier to take or works differently than what they are already on.
Good Foods for COPD
Making the right diet choices can also make your life with COPD more comfortable. People with COPD often require more calories than people without the condition. Healthy fats, like nuts, eggs, and avocados, can help you reach your calorie requirement.
Foods with vitamin A, like carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes, can be beneficial for people with COPD. COPD patients should be sure to get enough protein as well. A lack of protein results in muscle loss, which can make the symptoms of the disease even more uncomfortable. Protein foods that are good for COPD patients include fish, poultry, and lean cuts of meat.
For carb intake, whole grains with fiber like bulgur and quinoa are the best option. Zinc may also be effective in reducing the symptoms of COPD. Beans, peas, and chickpeas are great sources of zinc.
Bad Foods for COPD
There are many foods that can be beneficial if you have COPD, and there are many that won’t affect your symptoms at all, but some foods do exacerbate the symptoms. Food that are bad for COPD patients often cause abdominal discomfort or increase mucus production in the lungs.
If you have COPD, you should avoid cured meats as they contain nitrates that can aggravate symptoms. Excess salt can make the body retain water, which makes breathing more difficult. Fried foods and carbonated beverages also cause bloating and abdominal discomfort.
Cruciferous vegetables often cause gas, which can aggravate breathing problems. Some common cruciferous vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
Most people with COPD try to avoid milk and starchy processed food because they can increase mucus production. You should also consider staying away from citrus fruits as they increase the likelihood of acid reflux, and people with COPD are already more susceptible to acid reflux.
COPD is a serious condition, but you can manage your symptoms with medication, treatment, and changes to your diet. Being aware of your symptoms, what alleviates your symptoms, and what makes them worse can help you choose treatments and make lifestyle changes that allow you to manage your COPD.