Beginner’s guide to COPD

Primary Care Lungs and Breathing Healthy Aging
COPD diagnosis

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease causes obstructed (blocked) airflow from the lungs. COPD includes a group of progressive lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. “People with COPD often have serious trouble breathing. That can impact their ability to complete daily tasks and participate in everyday life,” explains Melanie Ames, FNP, Family Nurse Practitioner at Riverside Primary Care Kiln Creek. “Treatment can make a big difference in the effects of the condition, along with quitting any tobacco use or exposure.”

While most people who develop COPD have been exposed to cigarette smoke, the condition can also be caused by exposure to certain chemicals or other materials. 

Causes of COPD

The main cause of COPD is long-term cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Other causes of the condition include exposure to:

  • Certain dusts, vapors or chemicals in the workplace
  • Fumes from burning fuel for heating or cooking without proper ventilation

Symptoms of COPD

Many people with COPD won’t show signs or symptoms until the condition has done a lot of damage to their lungs. Symptoms can include:

  • Chronic cough that can produce mucus that is clear, yellow, white or greenish
  • Chronic respiratory infections
  • Feeling of tightness in your chest
  • Reduced energy level
  • Shortness of breath that worsens during exercise
  • Swelling in feet, ankles or legs
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Wheezing

Potential complications of COPD

COPD includes a group of conditions, most frequently chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Those with COPD are at an increased risk for developing other serious health conditions, including:

  • Depression
  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure in the lung arteries
  • Lung cancer
  • Respiratory infections, including the flu, colds and pneumonia

Treatment for COPD

Thankfully, treatments are available that can help you live a more normal, healthy life with COPD. These treatment options include:

  • Medications. Prescription medications that you take by mouth or with an inhaler can help open up your airways so you can breathe easier. “There are some medications that you take daily as preventative treatment, and there are certain inhalers that your doctor may prescribe in case of an emergency flare-up,” says Ames.
  • Oxygen therapy. If your blood isn’t getting enough oxygen due to your breathing trouble, you may need extra oxygen at home. Some people need to be on an oxygen machine full-time, while others can use it only when needed or during sleep. Your doctor will recommend which type of oxygen therapy is right for you.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation program. In this comprehensive program, you’ll receive COPD education, exercise training, nutrition advice, and counseling to treat your COPD. You’ll work with a team of many different health experts trained in effectively managing lung conditions. These experts will customize an outpatient program to manage your COPD and meet your unique needs.
  • Smoking cessation. “Quitting smoking immediately is essential to keep your COPD from getting worse and further impacting your ability to breathe,” explains Ames. If you’ve tried to quit on your own unsuccessfully, a primary care doctor can help.
  • Surgery. If your COPD is advanced, you may need to undergo surgery. During lung volume reduction surgery, your surgeon removes small areas of damaged lung tissue. This allows your lungs to better expand and take in more air. If a lung transplant is needed, your surgeon removes your damaged lungs and places a donor lung.

Make an appointment

Working with a primary care provider to reduce your risks for developing COPD – or properly managing the condition if you already have it – will help you live a fuller life. Schedule an appointment with a primary care doctor who can direct your care or suggest a specialist who is experienced in treating COPD and other lung conditions.

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