Overview of COPD
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), is a disease in which airflow is obstructed from the lungs. If you have COPD, you are also at high risk for heart disease, lung cancer, and a variety of other things. COPD is typically known to be caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or other harmful inhalants, such as cigarette smoke. There is no true cure for COPD, but your physician can help you manage your symptoms and with proper maintenance, you can live a normal life.
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You may not realize that you have COPD for a while. Symptoms are not that bad at first and they will progressively get worse. The main symptom of COPD is a chronic cough with mucus. Other symptoms may include: swelling in the ankles, unintended weight loss, shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, chronic cough, respiratory infections, lack of energy, and blueness of the lips or fingernail beds. You may also notice that you are experiencing times of exacerbations, which means that your symptoms are worse than usual and you will feel like this for days at a time.
The main cause of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is smoking. When you have COPD, the lungs will lose elasticity and over-expand. This means that when breathing out, there will still be air trapped in the lungs.
COPD Risk Factors
There are many risk factors associated with COPD. As stated previously, the most common risk factor for COPD is exposure to smoking. These may be people that have a history of smoking, or those who have been exposed to second-hand smoke. While the risk for COPD and smoking is high, there is an even higher risk in those who smoke and also have asthma. Work sites also have an effect on the lungs, especially when exposed to high amounts of chemical fumes, dust, or vapors. Any of these will cause irritation in the lungs, which could turn into COPD. Most people that develop COPD are over the age of 40 years old.
On top of handling symptoms of COPD, a patient may also experience other symptoms. Respiratory infections are common in those with COPD. These infections may include the cold, the flu, or pneumonia. You should receive the flu vaccination in an effort to stop these complications.
You may also be at risk for various other heart and lung problems. These are most likely associated with smoking. You must quit smoking immediately. Pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure in the lung arteries is another complication caused by COPD.
There may be certain points in your treatment when you will realize that you do not feel as good as you normally do. This is very common. It is important to see what the trigger was, make adjustments, and seek medical help when necessary.
Lastly, you may experience depression as a result of not being able to enjoy activities that you previously enjoyed, as a result of not being able to properly breathe.
There is a clear cause and a clear path to feeling better with COPD. Most COPD cases are a direct relation to smoking. Since smoking is the top cause of COPD, then it is essential to quit smoking or remove yourself from situations in which people are smoking. Work with your pulmonologist to quit smoking. Your physician will be able to create a clear path for you to quit smoking. If you believe that you work in an unsafe work environment, you may begin to look for new employment.
Many times COPD is misdiagnosed. This usually occurs when smokers are diagnosed with COPD, but in reality, they have a less common lung problem or a lessened lung function. On the other side, many people are diagnosed with COPD too late, and the medications are less effective.
The first step to a proper diagnosis is a physical exam with your pulmonologist. The physician will look over your symptoms and discuss your history. From here, the physician may recommend a variety of tests. Some tests include: a pulmonary function test, chest x-ray, CT scan, arterial blood gas analysis, or a variety of lab tests. These tests will allow the physician to see what exactly is happening and can find the best way to properly diagnose your symptoms so treatment will be that much easier.
The first step to helping COPD is to stop smoking or remove yourself from environments where you are subject to secondhand smoke. If you do not quit smoking, your COPD will become worse and you will eventually not be able to breathe well. Speak with your physician about how to quit smoking if you have been unsuccessful in the past.
Bronchodilators are medications that are typically found in an inhaler, and they are helpful in relaxing the muscles that surround your airways. Bronchodilators are available in short-term and long-term medications. Your physician will suggest the best one or both for you based on your symptoms. Inhaled steroids help to prevent exacerbations. Sometimes, your physician will recommend a mixture of both bronchodilators and inhaled steroids.
Oral steroids are helpful for patients that have moderate or severe exacerbations. This is typically only prescribed for a short amount of time, as side effects can include weight gain or diabetes. Antibiotics may be prescribed for those who have acute bronchitis or other symptoms that will aggravate COPD.
For people with severe COPD, your physician may recommend oxygen therapy or pulmonary rehabilitation therapy. Oxygen therapy is useful if there is not enough oxygen in your blood. Oxygen therapy can be used in a variety of ways. Some people will only use oxygen when sleeping or when doing activities. Oxygen is useful in improving the quality of life and extending life as well. Pulmonary rehabilitation therapy is provided through your pulmonologist’s office and can combine education, nutrition, counseling, and exercise training. You will work with your pulmonologist to see what works best for you. Pulmonary rehabilitation is helpful in increasing activities, and quality of life, and shortening hospital stays.