Everything You Should Know About COPD
According to the World Health Organization, 210 million people worldwide suffer from COPD. If the disease goes untreated, it can become painful and uncomfortable, and it can interfere with your day-to-day life. To better prepare yourself, learn more about the symptoms, treatments and risk factors for the condition.
What Is COPD?
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.
Causes of COPD
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.
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. One of the most common short-acting bronchodilators is Ipratropium.
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.
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.
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