Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term lung disease. Patients have an obstruction of their lung airflow that interferes with normal breathing. COPD is an under-diagnosed, life-threatening lung disease. Though the condition is not fully reversible, patients taking treatment live an active lifestyle in spite of the disease.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common conditions that contribute to COPD.
Chronic bronchitis is inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. It’s characterized by daily cough and mucus (sputum) production.
Emphysema is a condition in which the alveoli at the end of the smallest air passages (bronchioles) of the lungs are destroyed as a result of damaging exposure to cigarette smoke and other irritating gases and dust.
Symptoms of COPD often don't usually appear until significant lung damage has occurred. Without treatment, this worsens over time, particularly if smoking continues. For chronic bronchitis, the main symptom is a daily cough and mucus (sputum) production at least three months a year for two consecutive years.
Other signs and symptoms of COPD may include:
- Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities.
- Chest tightness.
- Having to clear your throat first thing in the morning due to excess mucus in your lungs.
- A chronic cough may produce mucus (sputum) that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish.
- Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis).
- Frequent respiratory infections.
- Lack of energy.
- Unintended weight loss (in later stages).
- Swelling in ankles, feet or legs.
People with COPD are also likely to experience periods during which their symptoms become worse than usual and persist for at least several days.
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If you cook with firewood or a kerosene stove in a poorly ventilated place, the fumes can cause COPD. If you smoke tobacco, you are likely get the disease.
Risk factors for COPD include:
- Exposure to tobacco smoke. The most significant risk factor for COPD is long-term cigarette smoking. The more years you smoke and the quantity you smoke, the greater your risk. Also, those exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk.
- Sniffing tobacco or chewing smokeless products is not a safer alternative. It is advisable to quit using all tobacco products.
- People with asthma who smoke. The combination of asthma, a long-term inflammatory airway disease, and smoking increases COPD risk even more.
- Exposure to dust and chemicals at work. Long-term exposure to chemical fumes, vapours and dust in the workplace can irritate and inflame your lungs.
- Exposure to fumes from burning fuel. In the developing world, people exposed to fumes from burning fuel (e.g. dung, firewood and coal) for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes are at higher risk of developing COPD.
- COPD develops slowly over the years, so most people are at least 40 years old when symptoms begin.
- The uncommon genetic disorder alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is the cause of some cases of COPD. Other genetic factors make some smokers more susceptible to the disease.
If you have risk factors for COPD, such as constant exposure to tobacco smoke and other lung irritant – fumes and dust, it's in your best interest to speak with your healthcare provider about your risks. They may want to test you for the condition, especially if you already have signs or symptoms of COPD.
You can prevent COPD by avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke and burning solid or liquid fuels (such as firewood and kerosene). If you smoke, you should quit smoking immediately. Your healthcare provider can support you. Use cooking gas instead of kerosene or firewood.
If you have COPD, you can take steps to feel better and slow the damage to your lungs:
- Control your breathing. Talk to your healthcare provider about techniques for breathing more efficiently throughout the day. Also, be sure to discuss breathing positions and relaxation techniques you can use when you're short of breath.
- Steam inhalation and drinking plenty of water can help clear your airways.
- You can get adequate exercise by walking or other moderate-intensity exercises. This can improve your overall strength and endurance and strengthen your respiratory muscles.
- A healthy diet can help you maintain your strength. If you're overweight, losing weight can significantly help your breathing, especially during times of exertion.
- Avoid smoke and air pollution. In addition to quitting smoking, it's important to avoid places where others smoke.
- See your healthcare provider regularly.
Medical treatment can ease symptoms, prevent complications, and generally slow disease progression.
Some drugs can reduce symptoms and cut down on flare-ups. These are some of your options:
- Bronchodilators (inhaled)
These are medicines that help relax the airways' muscles, widening the airways and clearing its mucus so you can breathe easier. They are prescription-only medicines and may be used to relieve or prevent a flare-up. These medicines are usually given alone or together (in a combination) by inhaler or with a nebulizer.
These are usually found combined with bronchodilators as reliever medicines. It can reduce inflammation in the airways and lower mucus production. Corticosteroids are also available as tablets, but inhaled types are preferable since the side effects are lower.
- Other useful medicines that are also prescription-only include phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors and theophylline.
- Antibiotics and antiviral medicines are useful when there is suspected respiratory infection.
- Pneumococcal vaccines or tetanus booster can help reduce your risk for other respiratory infections.
2. Oxygen therapy
If your blood oxygen level is too low, you can receive oxygen through a mask to help you breathe better.
Surgery is reserved for severe COPD or when other treatments have failed, which is more likely when you have a form of severe emphysema. Lung transplants are rare and inaccessible to most people.
People living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can live free of flare-ups for long with proper medical care. Stopping with smoking is an important part of the treatment as should avoiding second-hand smoke (the smoke you inhale when you are around people who smoke). It is important to follow the recommendation of your healthcare provider as closely as possible to get the most out of your care.
The earlier this disease is identified and treatment begins, the fewer the disabilities that occur.