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What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name of illnesses that damage lungs and make it hard to breathe. Traditionally, two common types of COPD were known as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Most cases of COPD are a mixture of both diseases. Chronic bronchitis involves having excessive mucus (phlegm) for at least 3 months of 2 consecutive years. The excess mucus clogs the airways. Emphysema is caused by destruction of air sacs in lungs, causing them to lose elasticity. Air that’s breathed in stays trapped in the lungs, and exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide doesn’t occur in the air sacs.

COPD affects 16 million Americans and causes more than 500,000 hospitalizations and 120,000 deaths yearly. COPD is usually progressive and not curable, but stopping smoking and drugs can help people live longer.

What Causes COPD?

Long-term smoking is the most common cause. Others include air pollution, childhood infections, and inhalation injury. A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can also cause COPD. COPD isn’t contagious.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?

Signs and symptoms include shortness of breath that worsens with exercise or frequent upper respiratory infections (such as chest colds). As COPD gets worse, people have more trouble breathing, even when resting; lasting cough or need to clear the throat; a lot of mucus; chest tightness; and anxiety. Chronic bronchitis may cause sleep problems from mucus in the airways. Other symptoms are frequent lung infections, wheezing, weight gain, and bluish color of lips or skin. Emphysema causes shortness of breath, barrel-shaped chest, and weight loss, but little cough or sputum production. These diseases can lead to increased strain on the heart.

How Is COPD Diagnosed?

The health care provider makes a diagnosis from symptoms, complete physical examination, pulmonary (lung) function tests, chest x-ray, and levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in blood in arteries.

How Is COPD Treated?

Treatment goals are to relieve symptoms. A pulmonary health care provider (specialist in breathing disorders) may be involved in care.

Treatments include stopping smoking, exercise, airway dilators, hydration, vaccinations for influenza and pneumonia, oxygen, antibiotics, decongestants, and breathing exercises. Oxygen can be supplied by tank, even a portable one, so people can travel with it. Decongestants help loosen airway mucus. Changes in posture help mucus to drain. Antibiotics and vaccinations reduce the number of infections. In rare cases, lung transplantation is for people with inherited disease.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing COPD:

  • DO stop smoking. This is extremely important.
  • DO avoid substances that make it hard to breathe, such as chemicals on the job or fumes from heating or cooking.
  • DO avoid contact with people that have colds or upper respiratory infections. Wash your hands often.
  • DO get a flu shot each year.
  • DO get a pneumonia vaccination every 5 years.
  • DO keep your house well ventilated.
  • DO call your health care provider if medicine doesn’t help shortness of breath or cough.
  • DO call your health care provider if you always feel tired or are losing a lot of weight involuntarily.
  • DO call your health care provider if you notice a bluish color in your lips or nails.
  • DON’T adjust your medicines (including oxygen) without first talking with your health care provider.
  • DON’T go outside or exercise if air is polluted or if the air quality index is poor.
  • DON’T spend a lot of money on air cleaners. They don’t usually help much.

Contact the following sources:

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
    National Institutes of Health
    Tel: (301) 592-8573
  • National Lung Health Education Program
    Tel: (972) 910-8555
  • American Lung Association
    Tel: (800) 586-4872

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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