Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of lung diseases that block airflow and make breathing difficult.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common conditions that make up COPD. Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. Emphysema occurs when the air sacs (alveoli) at the end of the smallest air passages (bronchioles) in the lungs are gradually destroyed.
Damage to your lungs from COPD can't be reversed, but treatment can help control symptoms and minimize further damage.
Symptoms of COPD often don't appear until significant lung damage has occurred, and they usually worsen over time. For chronic bronchitis, the main symptom is a cough that you have at least three months a year for two consecutive years. Other signs and symptoms of COPD include:
People with COPD are also likely to experience episodes called exacerbations, during which their symptoms become worse and persist for days or longer.
The main cause of COPD is tobacco smoking. However, in the developing world, COPD often occurs in women exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes. Only about 20 percent of chronic smokers develop COPD. Some smokers develop less common lung conditions. They may be misdiagnosed as having COPD until a more thorough evaluation is performed.
How your lungs are affected
Your lungs rely on the natural elasticity of the bronchial tubes and air sacs to force air out of your body. COPD causes them to lose their elasticity and partially collapse, which leaves some air trapped in your lungs when you exhale.
Causes of airway obstruction
Cigarette smoke and other irritants
Other irritants can cause COPD, including cigar smoke, secondhand smoke, pipe smoke, air pollution and workplace exposure to dust, smoke or fumes.
In emphysema, inflammation and other processes damage the fibers around the walls of the airways and the alveoli, causing them to lose their natural elasticity and to collapse too much. This also ...
Risk factors for COPD include:
Complications of COPD include:
Preparing for your appointment
If your primary care doctor suspects that you have COPD, you'll likely be referred to a pulmonologist, a doctor who specializes in lung disorders.
What you can do
You might want to have a friend or family member accompany you to your appointment. Often, two sets of ears are better than one when you're learning about a complicated medical problem such as COPD. Take notes if this helps.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
COPD is commonly misdiagnosed — former smokers are often told they have COPD when in reality they have another less common lung condition. Likewise, many persons who truly do have COPD aren't diagnosed until the disease is far advanced and interventions are less effective.
If you have symptoms of COPD and a history of exposure to lung irritants — especially cigarette smoke — your doctor may recommend these tests:
A spirometer is a diagnostic device that measures the amount of air you're able to breathe in and out and the time it takes you to exhale completely after you take a deep breath. ...
Treatments and drugs
A diagnosis of COPD is not the end of the world. For all stages of disease, effective therapy is available which can control symptoms, reduce your risk of complications and exacerbations, and improve your ability to lead an active life.
When exacerbations occur, you may need additional medications (such as antibiotics or steroids), supplemental oxygen or treatment in the hospital. Once symptoms improve, you'll want to take measures to prevent future exacerbations, such as taking inhaled steroids or long-acting bronchodilators, getting your annual flu vaccine and avoiding air pollution whenever possible.
Lung function after quitting smoking
Lung function normally declines with age. Quitting smoking slows the rapid decline in lung function caused by continued smoking. ...
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you have COPD, you can take steps to feel better and slow the damage to your lungs:
Coping and support
Living with COPD can be a challenge — especially as it becomes harder to catch your breath. You may have to give up some activities you previously enjoyed. Your family and friends may have difficulty adjusting to some of the changes.
It can help to share your fears and feelings with your family, friends and doctor. You may also want to consider joining a support group for people with COPD. And you may benefit from counseling or medication if you feel depressed or overwhelmed.
Unlike some diseases, COPD has a clear cause and a clear path of prevention. The vast majority of cases are directly related to cigarette smoking, and the best way to prevent COPD is to never smoke — or to stop smoking.
If you're a longtime smoker, these simple statements may not seem so simple, especially if you've tried quitting — once, twice or many times before. But, keep trying. It's critical to find a tobacco cessation program that can help you quit for good. It's your best chance for preventing damage to your lungs.
Occupational exposure to chemical fumes and dust is another risk factor for COPD. If you work with this type of lung irritant, talk to your supervisor about the best ways to protect yourself, such as using respiratory protective equipment.
Last Updated: 2013-02-01
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