Every breath is precious, especially if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a serious lung illness in which the airways to your lungs are partly blocked, making it difficult to get air in and out. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Many people have this condition without knowing it, so it’s important to understand the causes and symptoms of COPD to determine your risk.
The term COPD includes conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Each of these ailments prevents the lungs from working properly. Most people have more than one of the conditions that cause COPD.
With emphysema, the walls between air sacs in the lungs disintegrate, leaving fewer, larger sacs. These fewer sacs don't have as large a surface area to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, so they aren't efficient. These larger air sacs also lose their elasticity making it more difficult to get air our. People with emphysema are short of breath during physical activity and may be short of breath even at rest.
In chronic bronchitis, the airways have become inflamed and thickened. The linings of the airways produce too much mucus, which builds up, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing. The muscles that surround the lungs’ airways may tighten when they shouldn’t. This can cause your airways to narrow, making it harder to breathe.
All people who have COPD develop swelling in the airways. This decreases the airways’ natural elasticity, restricts the flow of air through the airways, and limits lung capacity.
COPD and smoking have a clear connection, says the NHLBI. Smoking causes up to 90 percent of COPD cases. People exposed to air pollution, chemical fumes, vapors, and mineral and organic dust for long stretches of time are also at risk.
In rare cases, COPD is caused by a genetic disorder called alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency. Alpha 1 antitrypsin is a protein that inactivates destructive proteins. A deficiency of this protein causes destruction of lung tissue, particularly in smokers.
Signs of COPD
The disease develops slowly, and it can take many years before you notice symptoms. Here’s what to watch for:
Shortness of breath, especially during exercise
Coughing up mucus
A cough that doesn’t go away
Tightness in the chest
If you have any of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you have COPD. It does mean you should talk with your health care provider. Your provider can evaluate you and perform tests to see if you have the disease.
There’s no cure for COPD, but you can take steps to keep your symptoms under control and slow the disease’s progress. The most important step you can take is to quit smoking.
Take a deeper breath
Your health care provider—and perhaps a lung specialist called a pulmonologist—will decide whether your COPD is mild, moderate, or severe based on breathing tests, and suggest treatments based on your condition.
Bronchodilators: These are medications that relax the muscles around your airways.
Inhaled steroids: These can reduce swelling in the airways and provide a sense of breathing easier.
Mucolytics: These turn mucus more liquid so it can be cleared more easily.
Pulmonary rehabilitation: This may include exercise, a healthy diet, and education about how to live with COPD.
Supplemental oxygen: This is in an oxygen tank or oxygen concentrator used in severe cases.
Annual flu shots: The flu can cause complications if you have COPD.
For some people with severe COPD, surgery may be recommended to remove sections of damaged lung, which can improve pulmonary function.
People with COPD often find that their symptoms flare up from time to time. Be sure to alert your health care provider if you have a flare-up. It could be a sign of a lung infection.