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What You Need to Know About COPD

What You Need to Know About COPD

Smoking is the top cause of this lung disease. Here are COPD symptoms to watch for, plus ways to lower your risk.

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a common, but preventable condition, with over 80 percent of cases linked to smoking.

COPD involves the tightening and chronic inflammation of your airways, along with the damage of tiny air sacs in your lungs, called alveoli. The symptoms of COPD are manageable, although they typically get worse over time. There’s no known cure for the disease.

Technically, COPD includes these two medical conditions and most people with the disease have both of them:

  • Chronic bronchitis: the inflammation, thickening and tightening of your airways, which often comes with excessive mucus production and
  • Emphysema: the destruction and scarring of your lung’s air sacs, which makes it harder for your lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide

People with asthma are sometimes diagnosed with COPD as well if their case is especially severe and their airway tightness doesn’t improve with asthma treatments.

How is COPD diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects that you have COPD, they’ll ask you to complete a pulmonary function test, or a PFT. A PFT involves taking a long, deep breath and then blowing out into a tube with as much force as you can manage.

The tube will be connected to a machine that measures lung strength. If the test reveals that your lungs could be weak or damaged, your doctor will give you an inhaled medication to open up your airways. Then, he or she will let you repeat the test to see if your results improve.

People with asthma tend to score better after taking the medication, while those with COPD typically experience just a slight improvement. 

Your doctor might also order:

  • A chest x-ray: an x-ray is used to see if another condition like heart failure or pneumonia is causing your symptoms instead of COPD
  • An arterial blood gas: this blood test is drawn from the artery in your wrist and measures your “blood gases,” which include oxygen and carbon dioxide
  • An exercise test: you may be asked to perform an exercise routine like walking or biking for a certain amount of time while your doctor monitors your breathing difficulty, heart rate and oxygen level 

Your doctor will also perform a physical assessment and ask you if troubling symptoms like shortness of breath have been interfering with your ability to perform everyday activities.

Symptoms of COPD
Diagnostic tests like a PFT can pick up on COPD before you start feeling symptoms. In fact, it’s common to experience no symptoms at all with early-stage COPD. However, as the condition worsens, you may develop:

  • Coughing and spitting up lots of phlegm
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue, or exhaustion
  • Frequent respiratory infections

If you’re a smoker, your symptoms will likely worsen faster if you continue to smoke than if you quit.

What causes COPD?
Smoking is the top cause of COPD. Quitting smoking can lower your risk of developing the disease or, if you already have COPD, can help manage your symptoms. 

In general, long-term exposure to air that’s contaminated with dirt or chemicals can lead to COPD.  That can include second-hand smoke, industrial chemicals that you inhale on-the-job or concentrated air pollution in your town.

In about two to three percent of cases, COPD is caused by a condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Even though this genetic deficiency is rare, everyone who’s diagnosed with COPD should get tested because it may put you at risk for other health problems like liver damage

COPD treatments
If you’re a smoker who’s diagnosed with COPD, the first step of your treatment plan is to quit tobacco. There are many methods to choose from when quitting smoking, including medications, nicotine replacement and talk therapy. If you’ve tried quitting in the past without success, don’t give up-- ask your doctor about other methods that could work for you. 

Additionally, your doctor will prescribe inhaled medications such as bronchodilators, or drugs that help open up your lungs, to ease your COPD symptoms and slow the progress of the disease.

As COPD progresses, you may need to start using portable oxygen. Oxygen is stored in a tank, travels through a thin tube and passes into your lungs through prongs that sit in your nostrils.

Some people might also need surgery like a lung transplant or a partial lung removal if their symptoms stop responding to medications and oxygen.

Resources for those living with COPD
If you have COPD, there are people and resources available to help you manage your diagnosis:

  • The COPD Foundation offers support groups and has an information line that can be reached at 1-866-316-COPD (2673).
  • The AskMD app offers a personalized consultation for living well with COPD.
  • Sharecare’s Quit Smoking page includes advice on making a quit plan, tips for quitting permanently and can even put you in touch with a doctor who specializes in addiction medicine.

With the proper support, planning and lifestyle changes, it’s possible to stay active and live well with COPD.

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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