COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a broad category that encompasses multiple lung diseases. Lung diseases block airflow and make breathing difficult. The two most common types of lung disease are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Emphysema: this lung disease causes damage in the fragile walls and elastic fibers of the alveoli (tiny balloon-like air sacs). When you exhale, small airways collapse which impairs lung function.
Chronic bronchitis: in this lung disease, your bronchial tubes become inflamed, narrowed, and your lungs produce more mucus, further causing blockage in your lungs. You develop a chronic cough as you constantly try to clear your lungs.
There are many different symptoms of COPD. Often, symptoms don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred. Having a cough for three months a year for two consecutive years is one of the most common symptoms. Other symptoms of COPD include:
- Shortness of breath (especially during physical activity)
- Chest tightness
- Clearing your throat first thing in the morning because of excess mucus
- Chronic cough that produces sputum that is clear, white, yellow or greenish
- Blue lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Lack of energy
- Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
In addition, people with COPD may have periods where their symptoms get worse for several days or longer (exacerbation).
The most common cause of COPD is tobacco smoking. In some cases, genetics play a factor in the development of COPD. If you have low levels of a protein called Alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt), you are more likely to develop COPD. Only a very small percentage of people (about 1%) with COPD have low AAt levels.
The most important part of COPD treatment is to stop smoking. Smoking will only cause more damage to the lungs and can eventually lead to your inability to breathe. If you find you are having trouble quitting, talk to your doctor about your options.
In addition to quitting smoking, certain medications can help COPD. Bronchodilators are used to help relax muscles around your airways. This helps stop coughing, shortness of breath, and can make breathing easier. Inhaled corticosteroids help relieve inflammation and help prevent exacerbations. Oral steroids, antibiotics, pulmonary rehabilitation, and surgery (in severe cases) can help relieve symptoms of COPD and lead to breathing easier and living better.