October 18, 2023
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of diseases that affect the lungs. The disease makes it difficult to breath and progressively gets worse. About 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, and it’s estimated that an additional 12 million people have the disease but don’t know it.
There are two main types of COPD: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. If you have emphysema, the problem is that many of the walls between the air sacs in your lungs are damaged or have become less elastic. If you have chronic bronchitis, your airways are always swollen and irritated, which creates more mucus and can cause clogs.
While COPD can’t be cured, it often is preventable and treatable. Here’s a guide to COPD, its causes, its effects, and how to manage it.
As many as 90 percent of all COPD cases may be caused by smoking. Other causes include inhaling secondhand smoke, air pollution, and workplace dust and fumes.
While COPD most frequently occurs in people 40 and older who smoke or have smoked cigarettes, as many as one in four of people with it have never smoked. Some of those people have a rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency. AAT is an enzyme that helps protect your lungs from the harmful effects of inflammation, which can be caused by smoke, air pollution, dust, fumes, and other irritants.
The symptoms of COPD generally include:
• Shortness of breath; a phlegmy cough
• Chest tightness
• A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
Doctors can usually determine whether you have COPD by reviewing your symptoms, discussing your family and medical history, and asking if you’ve had any exposure to lung irritants — especially cigarette smoke. They also may have you take several tests, including ones that measure how well your lungs are functioning by the amount of air they can inhale and exhale; how fast they can exhale; and how well they can deliver oxygen to your blood.
Other tests your doctor may order include chest X-rays or CT scans, or lab tests. While a lab test can’t confirm a COPD diagnosis, it may help determine the cause of your symptoms or rule out other conditions.
COPD can’t be cured, but there are treatments for it. In some cases, lifestyle changes can help people manage the disease’s symptoms, reduce its progression, and stay active.
If you have COPD, the most important thing to do is reduce your exposure to irritants. If you smoke, quitting should be your top priority. You also should limit your exposure to second-hand smoke, fumes, dust, and air pollution.
To help manage your COPD, you should see your doctor regularly. They can keep track of how the disease is progressing, help you manage exacerbations, make sure you’re vaccinated against flu and pneumonia, and prescribe various medications. Your doctor may also put you on a pulmonary rehabilitation program, which can include an exercise program and nutritional and psychological counseling.
If you have severe COPD, you may need an oxygen tank to breathe properly. For very severe COPD (typically emphysema), surgery may be needed to remove damaged lung tissues or replace your lungs.
People with COPD are vulnerable to severe outcomes if they become infected with COVID-19. COPD causes chronic inflammation and damage to the airways and lung tissue, making it more difficult to fight off respiratory infections like COVID-19.
Health conditions that are sometimes associated with COPD — such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes — are also risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19.
It’s also important to note that the risk of becoming severely sick from a COVID-19 infection increases with age, and COPD is commonly seen in older adults.
The following preventive measures may help people with COPD reduce their risk of COVID-19 infection:
You can greatly reduce your chances of getting COPD by not smoking or quitting the habit now. For those that are diagnosed with the disease, there are treatments available to slow its progression, manage its symptoms, and minimize its effects.