What is COPD and what causes it? How is it treated? This article explores the symptoms and causes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and how COPD is diagnosed and treated.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD, affects over 15 million U.S. citizens.
Even though it was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2014, researchers estimate millions of adults are unaware that they have COPD and fail to get treatment. That’s why it is so important for everyone to understand this often undiagnosed disease.
What is COPD?
The term COPD is used to describe a number of chronic and progressive conditions, including lung diseases such as emphysema, refractory asthma, and chronic bronchitis.
If you have COPD, your lungs lose their natural elasticity. When you exhale, some air remains trapped in your lungs. Those with COPD experience blocked airflow and difficulty breathing.
What Are the Symptoms of COPD?
According to the Mayo Clinic, common symptoms of COPD include:
- Shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness, especially during physical activities
- A chronic cough that may (or may not) produce mucus, as well as clearing your throat in the mornings to clear excess mucus
- Numerous respiratory infections
- Cyanosis (blueness of the lips or fingernail beds)
- Swelling in ankles, feet or legs
It is possible to have COPD for years without noticeable symptoms. In fact, symptoms may not appear until after there has been significant lung damage. Those with COPD may also have episodes known as exacerbations, which means symptoms become worse than usual for several days or more.
What is COPD and What Causes It?
COPD frequently occurs in current or former smokers. That includes cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc. and secondhand smoke.
The COPD Foundation states that although not all smokers get COPD, approximately 90% of those who do get COPD have smoked. Pollutants from work environments also contribute to COPD.
But even those who have never smoked or been exposed to lung damaging environmental factors can develop COPD, so genetics also play a role.
How Is COPD Diagnosed?
In order to diagnose chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, your doctor will assess your symptoms, conduct an examination, take a detailed health history, and evaluate at test results.
Tests will probably include a spirometry, which measures whether your lungs are working correctly. The test measures the volume of air you inhale and exhale, as well as how quickly you exhale.
How Is COPD Treated?
The first step in any COPD treatment plan is to stop smoking. This is not easy, but it will keep the COPD from getting worse. You should also avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
There are several kinds of medications used to treat COPD. These may include an inhaler to make breathing easier and/or steroids to reduce airway inflammation. Doctors may also prescribe antibiotics to treat respiratory infections.
Lung therapies, such as oxygen, are commonly used for those with moderate or severe COPD. Your doctor may recommend a pulmonary rehabilitation program, which is a combination of education, exercise, information about nutrition, and counseling.
What If My COPD Worsens?
Despite treatment, exacerbation may occur and if untreated, it can lead to lung failure. These episodes can be triggered by a variety of causes such as air pollution or respiratory infections. If this occurs, you may need additional treatment.
In some cases, surgery may be recommended. Lung volume reduction surgery, bullectomy, and lung transplantation are surgical options which your doctor may consider.
What Actions Should I Take?
So what is COPD? The biggest thing to know is that COPD is a growing problem. It leads to serious long-term disability and death and currently there is no cure. It often goes undiagnosed because many people erroneously assume that the symptoms are just caused by aging. Left untreated, the disease can progress quickly and become debilitating.
Let your doctor know if you are having any symptoms of COPD. Being aware of your symptoms and seeking early treatment for COPD can slow the progression of the disease and improve your quality of life.
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