Health, Mind & Body

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Understanding COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is an umbrella term for several lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe. The two main forms of COPD include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Doctors now classify anyone who has emphysema or chronic bronchitis as having COPD.

COPD can cause coughing with large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and degradation of the lungs. People who have COPD may find it difficult to engage in daily activities without becoming breathless. Symptoms may be quite similar to asthma but with an entirely different cause.

People who suffer from COPD are typically smokers or those who used to smoke. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as dust or air pollution, also can contribute to COPD. COPD is a common illness among the elderly who experienced long-term exposure to either cigarette smoke or other noxious particles from fuels, chemicals and occupational dusts before more stringent environmental regulations were implemented.

The Mayo Clinic says about 1 percent of people with COPD have the disease due to a genetic disorder that causes low levels of a protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin, or AAt. AAt is made in the liver and secreted into the bloodstream to help protect the lungs.

In healthy lungs, air travels through the trachea, or windpipe, into tubes  known as bronchia that connect to the lungs. These bronchial tubes end in large bunches of air sacs, called alveoli. Small capillaries run through the walls of the alveoli to help with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body.

When someone has COPD, the airways and alveoli lose their elastic quality and many air sacs may be destroyed. In addition, the walls of the bronchial tubes can become thick, inflamed and filled with mucus, prohibiting the flow of air. As a result, less oxygen is breathed into the body and passed into the bloodstream to fuel the body's needs. Lack of oxygen can lead to blueness of the lips and fingernail beds, fatigue and reduced mental acuity.

No treatment currently exists to reverse damage to the lungs or other components of the respiratory system. The majority of COPD therapies are designed to mitigate symptoms and make breathing easier. These include inhaled medications or pills taken orally. Many people with COPD may need to take medicines known as controller medications every day. In the event of a breathing attack, rescue inhalers also may be prescribed.

The COPD Foundation says other therapies also may help patients cope with COPD. Oxygen therapy can reduce strain on the heart and prevent the negative side effects of decreasing blood-oxygen levels. Learning certain breathing techniques, including abdominal and pursed-lips breathing, can reduce anxiety levels and prevent hyperventilation, which typically compounds breathing problems.

People with COPD also should improve the air quality in their homes. Allergens and air irritants can make breathing more difficult or lead to acute attacks. Install an air filtration system to keep a home clean.

Above all, quitting smoking is the most effective way to combat COPD, and smokers should speak with their physicians about smoking cessation programs and medications.