What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is an umbrella term for two respiratory illnesses -- chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema. There are 16 million Americans who have been diagnosed with COPD, of whom 14 million have chronic bronchitis and 2 million have emphysema.
COPD results primarily from smoking tobacco. Years of smoking cause damage to the airways in the lungs. This lung damage continues to progress with the use of tobacco. Average current and former smokers will likely not notice or acknowledge symptoms for several years. Typically, they will begin noticing the first symptoms of shortness of breath when they reach their 40s. However, earlier signs of COPD are often present. These include chronic cough and increased mucus production. Recognizing these early signs is important because lifestyle modifications, such as smoking cessation and avoiding respiratory irritants, can be made to prevent additional damage to the airways.
In technical terms, COPD is a slowly progressive disease that is characterized by a decrease in the ability of the lungs to maintain the body's oxygen supply and remove carbon dioxide. As a result of this decrease in lung function, COPD patients alter their lifestyles because they become short of breath after minimal exertion. For example, instead of climbing a flight of stairs COPD patients take the elevator. Physical activities also take longer to complete. Lawn mowing that a COPD patient might have finished in 40 minutes only a year ago may now take an hour to do.
- breathlessness even after mild exertion
- chronic coughing, which may or may not produce mucus
- frequent clearing of the throat
- chest tightness
Because COPD is a progressive disease, patients may attribute early symptoms to aging or being out of shape. They may also believe they only have a benign smoker's cough.
Although symptoms of COPD may be present earlier, people are typically diagnosed with COPD when they are older than 45 and have at least a 20 pack-year smoking history. Pack-years are calculated by dividing the number of cigarettes smoked per day by 20 (the number of cigarettes in a pack) and multiplying this figure by the number of years a person has smoked. For example, a person who smokes 40 cigarettes a day and has smoked for 10 years would have a 20 pack-year smoking history:
(40 cigarettes per day ÷ 20 cigarettes per pack = 2) ( 2 x 10 years of smoking = 20 pack-year history).
What Causes COPD?
- Cigarette, Pipe, cigar and other types of tobacco smoking
- Passive exposure to cigarette smoking
- Occupational dusts and chemicals
- Air pollution
- Genetic factors (less than 5 percent of cases).
Treatments for COPD
Treatment for COPD includes inhalers that dilate the airways (bronchodilators) and sometimes theophylline. The COPD patient must stop smoking. In some cases inhaled steroids are used to suppress lung inflammation, and, in severe cases or flare-ups, intravenous or oral steroids are given.
Antibiotics are used during flare-ups of symptoms as infections can worsen COPD. Chronic, low-flow oxygen, non-invasive ventilation, or intubation may be needed in some cases. Lung volume reduction surgery for COPD is a surgical therapy currently being evaluated in a large, national trial. Lung transplant is sometimes performed for severe cases.
Living With COPD
Avoid Potential Irritants -
Both airborne irritants (for example, from cigarette smoke) and infections (for example, the flu) can increase mucus in the airways. For someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), this makes it harder to breathe and can lead to a hospital visit.
Exercise And Eat Well -
Exercise and good nutrition are important parts of maintaining optimal health for everyone, but especially if you have COPD. Keeping your muscles and lungs strong will make it easier to breathe. Maintaining a proper diet helps maintain your energy and wards off potential infections. As with exercise, establishing good eating habits — for example, consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables — will only help your health.
Control Your Coughing And Breathing
Controlled breathing methods and controlled coughing can help you breathe easier.
American Lung Association
New York, NY 10019
Phone: (212) 315-8700
Toll-Free: (800) 586-4872
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
6701 Rockledge Dr.
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573