What Is COPD?

Author 07.17.15
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COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive and serious respiratory disease and the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Often developed as a result of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, most cases of COPD happen when the lungs are exposed to pollutants or contaminants over long periods of time. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD as well as other respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer. People who work in industrial settings with heavy fumes, or in places with smoke from fires, are also more at risk of developing COPD. Treatments can help people prolong the progression of the disease, but there is no cure and the condition is ultimately fatal.

Although COPD is so prevalent - roughly 12 million Americans are diagnosed with the disease at any given time - researchers believe there are many others with COPD who have not been diagnosed. The early symptoms of COPD are often mistaken for other less-serious health problems. This is problematic because there's no way to reverse the damage of COPD. The longer people go without getting help, the sooner they'll lose the abilities to go about with their regular lives. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease causes people to lose lung functioning over time, making once-routine activities physically exhausting. Eventually, people with advanced COPD are unable to take care of themselves, requiring the need for caregivers or assisted living. Being aware of the symptoms and dangers can COPD is essential for people who face increased risks of the condition.

Signs & Symptoms of COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages because of the nature of its symptoms. Most people don't even show symptoms in the early stages of COPD, or the symptoms may be so mild that they're mistaken for allergies, asthma or the common cold. Also, many people who smoke have already developed what's known as the ""smoker's cough,"" which is characterized by the coughing up of phlegm or mucus in the chest and throat. This style of cough is a key symptom of COPD, and a smoker who is already coughing up mucus may not realize he or she is at risk of COPD. Other early symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath after moderate physical activity. This shortness of breath can manifest in coughing, wheezing or chest tightness. Many people with this COPD symptom subconsciously alter their daily routines to avoid this degree of activity. However, shortness of breath only gets worse as COPD progresses to its later stages.

The signs and symptoms of late-stage COPD and end-stage COPD are much more difficult to treat. Once the patient reaches end-stage COPD, treatments are often administered with the simple goal of keeping patients as comfortable as possible. By the advanced stages of COPD, people are usually experiencing chronic fatigue because of sleeping difficulties and severely decreased lung functioning. Standing up or walking around may be disorienting and exhausting from a lack of oxygen; in addition, the tips of the fingers may turn blue or gray from oxygen deprivation. Swelling can occur in the legs and feet, and patients' bodies begin to diminish as the body requires more resources. Coughing fits and other flare-ups of symptoms can result in a life-threatening condition known as COPD exacerbation, which requires immediate emergency medical care and hospitalization.

COPD and Damage to the Lungs

COPD does permanent, progressive damage to the lungs that ultimately diminishes a person's lung functioning by more than 70 percent. Most of the damage from COPD is to the alveoli and bronchi, which are the tiny air sacs and airways in the lungs that allow air to be transferred into a person's bloodstream. These necessary components of the respiratory system begin to degrade at the onset of COPD, causing a decline in the lung's ability to function normally. This is why people start out with mild shortness of breath during the early stages of COPD. The damage to the alveoli and bronchi is caused by emphysema, while chronic bronchitis causes inflammation in the airway that leads to the production of excess mucus. This mucus forms heavily in the lungs and in the throat, causing difficulty breathing and worsening symptoms. This is why people with COPD tend to cough up lots of phlegm and mucus.

Managing the symptoms of COPD is a lifelong struggle for people who have been diagnosed. If symptoms are allowed to get out of hand, then COPD exacerbation may occur, requiring the patient to be hospitalized. The other danger of COPD exacerbation is that the severity of symptoms is heightened during these flare-ups, and usually, symptoms never return to their previous levels of severity. With lung damage being irreversible, people who are diagnosed with COPD are advised to stop smoking immediately. Also, people who work in industrial areas where they're regularly exposed to fumes and chemicals are advised to find other jobs or change positions so they're no longer exposed. The damage to the lungs caused by COPD can never be repaired, and there's nothing to stop the damage from growing more severe over time. Without any actual cure, the best patients can do is adhere to their treatments, make healthy lifestyle choices and take whatever measures they can to ease the stress on their diminished respiratory systems.

Basic COPD Treatment Options

Treating the signs and symptoms of COPD requires using various therapies, medications and breathing aids. When choosing courses of treatments for patients with COPD, doctors consider the stages of their patients' conditions while also factoring in overall health and other relevant health conditions. A person in the early stages of COPD may be able to find relief from symptoms by making lifestyle changes and using an inhaled medication. On the other end of the spectrum, a patient in the later stages of COPD would require frequent monitoring, physical therapy, respiratory therapy, sleeping aids and other treatment options. Surgery on the respiratory system can prolong the lives of patients who are suffering from severe COPD symptoms. Various forms of medications may also help certain patients experience more relief in their day-to-day lives.

Making the right lifestyle changes are as important as any other form of COPD treatment, especially considering that most patients battle COPD symptoms for several years as they condition worsens. People who are smokers should stop smoking immediately; people who work in hazardous conditions should relocate to safer work environments. Getting enough exercise during the early stages of COPD may be difficult but can also push back the point of more severe symptoms setting in. A healthy diet provides the body with more optimal energy as lung functioning diminishes, helping to maintain more consistent energy levels. Preventing weight gain, getting enough rest and staying relatively healthy can protect your body and mind as COPD begins taking its toll.

Late-Stage COPD Treatments

In the later stages of COPD, lifestyle changes are no longer enough to relieve the most severe symptoms of this condition. As breathing gets more difficult, many patients require the use of oxygen therapy to sleep through the night and be comfortable throughout the day. Unique styles of physical therapy are often recommended for people with advanced COPD symptoms; regular exercise is difficult in the later stages of COPD, as regular activity can cause significant breathing problems. Exercises learned through physical therapy and respiratory therapy can help COPD patients breathe deeper, which can relieve coughing and help provide the body with more energy. Even speaking and sitting up are easier with the proper breathing exercises.

Medication is also required for patients in the late stages of COPD. These medications - including bronchodilators, inhaled steroids and other powerful drugs -- may help reduce inflammation in the airways, clear out thick mucus or suppress the urges that cause coughing fits. Surgery is also an option for patients with advanced symptoms; reducing the size of the lungs or performing lung transplants can provide significant relief for three to four years, although lung transplants are rare and long-term effects of these procedures are still being studied. New treatments are constantly being reviewed in hopes of helping people with COPD to live longer, more comfortable lives.

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