What is COPD and how is it Treated?

June 19, 2018  Source: HealthLine 162

Do you often face difficulty in breathing while engaged in everyday activities? If your breathing is becoming increasingly strained, it might be time to consult your general physician or pulmonologist and get screened for the progressive lung disease named COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).  

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is kind of lung disorder where the person may have difficulty in breathing which worsens over time.  An irritation or inflammation in the lungs causes the air sacs to lose their elasticity, which leaves the air trapped in the lungs when you exhale.  If this lasts too long, it could lead to a group of lung diseases (Chronic bronchitis and Emphysema) known as COPD. Around 25-50% of all people are affected by COPD but are unaware of the condition because the earlier stages go unrecognized.

COPD combines two conditions.  

Chronic bronchitis - This is a condition wherein the airways get blocked due to excess mucous deposition.

Emphysema - This is a disease condition wherein the tiny air sacs (termed as alveoli) inside the lungs are unable to stretch. Hence there is an insufficient amount of air exchange inside the lungs, which leads to inability in breathing.

There is a common misconception that COPD and asthma are the same illness. COPD and asthma might be similar but factors such as age, causes, symptoms and treatment distinguish them from each other. Both asthma and COPD are long-term health conditions. Signs like a chronic cough, wheezing and shortness of breath are common in both. Often,  by the time the disease is diagnosed, it will be too late and the lungs will have been permanently damaged.

There are several notable differences between asthma and COPD.

  • Asthma is often a major risk factor, which ultimately leads to COPD.
  • Asthma is mostly diagnosed in children. COPD is usually diagnosed in adults and smokers. Risks are higher in elderly people.
  • Asthma is caused by a combination of environmental (allergens) and genetic factors. The condition becomes worse in cold air and with exercise.
  • COPD is caused mostly due to smoking and second-hand smoke. Around 1% of COPD cases are reported due to decreased levels of alpha-1-antitrypsin proteins, which serves as lung protection. COPD gets worsened due to exposure to pollutants and respiratory infections like flu and pneumonia.
  • Lung functioning can be fully reversed in asthma patients. With COPD, however, there could be a more rapid decline in lung functionality as COPD progresses.
  • Asthma can be controlled on a regular basis, COPD worsens over time.

The causes of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) include mainly smoking where the lining of the airways becomes damaged and inflamed and does not reverse even with treatment. Passive smoking is indirect smoking where the person inhales the smoke from the surrounding. Continuous exposure to grains, isocyanates, cadmium and smoke from coal industries, open fires in enclosed spaces may increase the risk of COPD. Air pollution is one of the main causes of COPD. Close contact with COPD affected patients might result in spreading of the disease.
Genes also play a vital role as family history and childhood history of respiratory infections may also lead to COPD.

Varied signs and symptoms of COPD include a chronic wet or dry cough, fatigue (extreme tiredness), constant sneezing, phlegm deposition in lungs, dyspnea (shortness of breath) which becomes worse with lighter activities, excess mucus secretion, recurrent cold, wheezing (breathing with rattling sound in the chest), cyanosis or bluish discoloration of skin and nails and edema of hands and feet, chest tightness and difficulty in sleeping.

Stages of COPD.

Stage 0 – At risk: Symptoms like coughing and noticeable mucus secretion would be observed. At this stage it is not considered that a patient is affected with COPD, hence treatment is not needed. But smokers are advised to stop smoking and a healthy diet and routine exercise to improve overall health.

Stage 1 – Mild: Here, people don’t notice the general symptoms such as a chronic cough and increased mucus production. If a doctor is consulted at this point, you will be asked to use a bronchodilator as and when needed.

Stage 2 – Moderate: At the stage, the symptoms would become more noticeable. Apart from coughing and mucus secretion, one might experience shortness of breath. Long-acting bronchodilators would be prescribed.

Stage 3 – Severe: Normal symptoms would become more frequent and there will be occasional flare-ups. It will be difficult to lead a normal life. Your physician might recommend corticosteroids, other medications, or oxygen therapy, depending upon the severity.

Stage 4 – Very severe: At this stage, symptoms will start progressing and it may become tedious to complete everyday tasks. Flare-ups can become life-threatening and surgical treatment may be advised.

As COPD progresses, a person will become more susceptible to complications, such as respiratory infections like colds, flu, and pneumonia. Depression, high blood pressure in lung arteries, heart problems and lung cancer might arise at a later stage.

A sputum sample should be taken to detect COPD infection. Blood tests are taken to detect whether the breathlessness is due to anemia or COPD.  The deficiency of alpha 1 antitrypsin can also be tested via a blood test. X-rays of the chest can detect whether symptoms are due to any other lung and chest infections. Electrocardiograms are used to obtain electrical signals from the heart to check the condition of the heart. Similarly, peak flow meters will be used to measure the breathing rate. Just six seconds are enough to rule out COPD with the help of a spirometry test.

COPD may not be curable, but it is treatable. Treatment measures include usage of bronchodilators (salmeterol) to open the airways and to allow smooth breathing. Anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to treat the swelling in the lungs. Several lifestyle changes such as regular exercise or yoga are suggested in order to maintain a healthy life.

Preventive measures include quitting smoking habits and it is strictly advised to avoid smoke exposure. Mouth covers or masks should be used while working in polluted places. These steps would will surely ease symptoms and slows down the progress of the infection.

By Ddu
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