Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious disease that affects people across the world. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, COPD is one of the top five leading causes of death in the world. In many cases, it’s possible to prevent COPD, so it’s important to become aware of this disease, its causes, and how to prevent it. While it’s impossible to reverse the lung damage that comes with COPD, treatment options are available to help prevent further damage to the lungs.
What is COPD? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a type of lung disease that makes breathing difficult. This disease is often a mixture of two diseases:
- Emphysema – What is emphysema? Emphysema is a condition in which the air sacs in the lungs have been damaged, losing their ability to stretch. This results in less air entering and leaving the lungs, which often leaves individuals feeling like they are out of breath.
- Chronic Bronchitis – Chronic bronchitis involves the inflammation of the bronchial tubes, and this inflammation often results in excess mucus. The inflammation and mucus can block your airways, making it difficult to breathe.
Other less common diseases that may be included under the umbrella COPD definition include refractory asthma and bronchiectasis.
COPD International notes that in most cases, COPD is not diagnosed until individuals have already lost some of their lung capacity, and this damage is not fully reversible.
Symptoms of COPD
COPD symptoms may not occur in the early stages of COPD, and most symptoms don’t appear until the damage to the lungs has already occurred, which is why Patient.co.uk estimates that 60-85% of patients are still undiagnosed. Some of the common symptoms of COPD include:
- Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath, particularly during physical exertion
- Feeling of tightness in the chest
- Frequent problems with respiratory infections
- Chronic cough that produces mucus that may been green, yellow, white, or clear
- Excessive fatigue or lack of energy
- Colds lasting weeks instead of just a few days
- Weight loss that is unintended
As the disease progresses, some individual deal with difficulty breathing and shortness of breath, even while performing simple, normal tasks, such as cooking a meal or getting dressed.
Individuals who have COPD may deal with episodes known as exacerbations, during which the symptoms of COPD become even worse. These exacerbations may last for days or weeks.
What Causes COPD?
According to NHS.uk, one of the most common causes of COPD is smoking. However, smoking is not the only cause of COPD. The most common cause of COPD include:
- Smoking – Smoking is the number one cause of COPD. Smoking causes inflammation in the lining of the airways, and this may result in permanent damage to the lungs and airways. Lung.org estimates that 80% of COPD deaths are a result of smoking.
- Secondhand Smoke – Secondhand smoke also has the potential to cause COPD, and statistics from COPD-International show that secondhand smoke can increase an adult’s risk of COPD by 10-43%.
- Dust and Fumes – In some cases, exposure to certain chemicals and types of dust, such as coal, cadmium, and isocyanates, may cause COPD, even in individuals who have never smoked. However, exposure to these fumes or dust only increases the risk of COPD for individuals who smoke too.
- Alpha-1-antitrypsin Deficiency – In rare cases, COPD may be caused by a genetic disorder that results in low levels of alpha-1-antitrypsin, a protein that is made in the liver and released into the bloodstream to keep the lungs protected.
Potential Complications of COPD
COPD is a serious disease on its own, but this disease may also cause a number of complications. In many cases, complications may be serious enough to require a hospital stay, and the Australian Lung Foundation estimates that COPD is one of the top causes of avoidable hospital admissions. Some of the serious complications of this disease include:
- High Blood Pressure – Pulmonary hypertension, which is a type of high blood pressure that occurs in the arteries that carry blood to the lungs, may occur as a result of COPD.
- Lung Cancer – Individuals who have COPD, particularly those who smoke, have a higher risk of lung cancer.
- Respiratory Infections – COPD makes individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections, including the flu, colds, and pneumonia. Unfortunately, respiratory infections can increase the symptoms of COPD and result in more damage to the lungs. To help prevent respiratory infections, individuals with COPD should consider getting both the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine and the flu vaccination.
- Heart Disease – While researchers are not sure why, having COPD can increase an individual’s risk of heart disease, including stroke and heart attack.
When individuals are diagnosed with COPD, they are diagnosed with one of four COPD stages, including:
- Stage 1 – Mild COPD – Mild COPD is the earliest stage of this disease, and the major symptoms of the disease at this stage include frequent coughing and increased mucus production. Some people do not realize they have Mild COPD. Many of the symptoms are often attributed to aging. If an individual has a FEV1 (Forced Expiratory Volume in 1 second) rate of 80% of higher, they are usually diagnosed with Stage 1 COPD. Mild COPD can usually be treated effectively with some lifestyle changes.
- Stage 2 – Moderate COPD – Patients with an FEV1 ratio ranging between 50-79% are diagnosed with Stage 2 Moderate COPD. At this stage, coughing and mucus production increases even more. Lifestyle changes are recommended and pulmonary rehabilitation and bronchodilators may be used to treat this stage of the disease.
- Stage 3 – Severe COPD – The FEV1 rate ranges between 30-49% for individuals with Sever COPD. Stage 3 COPD symptoms include greater fatigue, more problems with shortness of breath, and frequent problems with exacerbations. Along with the treatments used for stage 1 and 2, physicians often prescribe inhaled glucocorticoids.
- Stage 4 – Very Severe COPD – Often referred to as end stage COPD, individuals at this stage have a FEV1 rate of less than 30%. Surgical intervention may be recommended at this stage, but it only benefits a few patients. The COPD life expectancy for individuals with Stage 4 COPD is very short. Patients may be treated with supplemental oxygen, bronchodilators, pulmonary rehab, NIPPV, opiates, and psychological support.
COPD Treatment Options
Currently, no cure for COPD exists, but the LungFoundation.com.au notes that medical evidence shows that early diagnosis and treatment can help to reduce mortality and improve the quality of life in individuals with this disease. Treatments for COPD include:
- Medications – Multiple medications may be prescribed to treat this disease, such as:
- Inhaled Steroids – These medications prevent exacerbations and reduce the inflammation in the airways.
- Bronchodilators – Bronchodilators, which generally come in inhalers, help to relax muscles surrounding the airways, helping to relieve shortness of breath and coughing. Both short-acting and long-acting bronchodilators are available.
- Oral Steroids – Oral steroids may be used to treat severe or moderate acute exacerbations.
- Combination Inhalers – These inhalers may combine inhaled steroids and bronchodilators. Examples include Symbicort and Advair.
- Antibiotics – COPD may be aggravated by COPD, so antibiotics are often prescribed to help prevent exacerbations when respiratory infections occur.
- Phosphodiesterase-4 Inhibitors – These medications are very new, and they work by relaxing airways and reducing inflammation.
- Lung Therapies – Certain lung therapies may be prescribed for individuals who have more severe forms of COPD. Therapies include:
- Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program – In most cases, these programs include nutrition advice, exercise training, counseling, and education.
- Oxygen Therapy – Individuals who do not have enough oxygen in the blood may require supplemental oxygen.
- Surgery – In rare cases, surgery may be a form of treatment used by individuals who are not getting the help they need from other treatments. Lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplant surgery are two surgical options that may be used to treat this disease in some individuals.
Since COPD can be such a serious disease, the best way to avoid this disease is to focus on prevention. One of the most important preventive measures is to avoid smoking, but even if you do smoke, quitting can prove very helpful, slowing down lung damage.