What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by chronic obstruction of lung airflow that interferes with normal breathing and is not fully reversible.
The air you breathe in, travels through the trachea (windpipe) into the lungs through the bronchi. Inside the lungs, the bronchi divide into bronchioles that end in clusters or air sacs called alveoli. These air sacs have very thin walls filled with tiny blood vessels that carry the oxygen into the bloodstream. Healthy airways and air sacs have natural elasticity and get back to their normal shape after being stretched. However, when an individual suffers from COPD, the air sacs lose their natural elasticity and the lungs can no more depend on them, hence, some air is left trapped inside the lungs upon exhalation.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a common, preventable and treatable disease that is characterized by persistent respiratory symptoms and airflow limitation, caused due to airway or alveolar abnormalities, usually caused by significant exposure to noxious particles or gases. The chronic airflow limitation that is characteristic of COPD is caused by a combination of small airway diseases, e.g. obstructive bronchiolitis and parenchymal destruction (emphysema), the relative contributions of which vary from person to person.
Prolonged exposure of the lungs to irritants causes COPD. The main cause of COPD in this region is long term cigarette smoke and inhalation of second hand smoke. A very small percentage of people with COPD are genetically predisposed to the condition because of the low levels of a protein called Alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt).
COPD is most commonly seen in adults who are in the mid-forties. The condition is rather rare in children as it is caused due to prolonged exposure of the lungs to pollutants. However, children may experience similar symptoms like persistent cough, shortness of breath etc. that could be caused due to the genetic disorder AAt.
The primary risk factor for the development of COPD is smoking. Other risk factors that make an individual susceptible to developing the condition include;
- Inhalation of second hand smoke
- Smokers who also suffer from asthma
- Exposure to pollution
- People working in areas with exposure to fumes
Symptoms of COPD may not always be very prominent. In most cases, COPD may depict very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Symptoms often do not begin to appear unless there is significant damage in the lung. As the condition progresses, the symptoms also get worse. Signs and symptoms of COPD include;
- Chronic cough and production of mucus
- Shortness of breath causing inability to perform rigorous physical activities
- Respiratory infections
- Tightness in the chest
- Weight loss
The symptoms get worse gradually and could also flare up during specific times. People with COPD, often suffer from common respiratory infections like the flu or influenza. Apart from the aforementioned, severe symptoms can also cause physical indications like swelling of the ankle, feet or legs. Upon noticing any unusual symptoms, it is extremely important to report the same to a specialist in order to avoid any further complications.
A specialist may diagnose the condition based on the symptoms you experience and report. The doctor may prescribe a few tests in order to confirm the condition. COPD, however has no definitive cure, although with professional help and a few lifestyle changes, the disease can be made to progress slower. Moreover treatment of the condition helps in relieving the symptoms one experiences and prevents any further complications that may occur if the condition is left untreated.
Certain changes made to an individual’s lifestyle will help go a long way in improving the condition. Quitting smoking is the most important step towards effectively treating COPD. Always remember that it is never too late to quit smoking, even if you have been a chain smoker for years. Smoking cessation at any point will help reduce the impact of damage done to the lungs and further reduce the health implications caused by COPD.
Ensure to seek professional help upon observing any unusual symptoms. A healthcare practitioner will suggest the necessary medications in order to treat the condition. Another treatment modality of COPD is surgery. Surgery is effective and applicable only in case of individuals who have shown no improvement with medications.
Awareness about COPD is extremely important in order for individuals to understand the symptoms they experience, which in turn helps in early diagnosis of the condition. For instance, shortness of breath is a possible symptom in people with COPD, however, it is not the only obvious symptom associated with the condition. Moreover, this symptom is often associated and confused with asthma, since people are much more aware of the condition.
Treatment of COPD focuses solely on its management rather than its cure. An individual who quits smoking or reduces exposure to smoke/fumes, consumes healthy food and works out regularly can successfully manage the condition. Like the case with any chronic health condition, an individual must stay motivated in order to effectively manage COPD.
Specialist in Respiratory Medicine