Progression of COPD

Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School
Excerpted from a Harvard Special Health Report

Although there are many ways to manage the discomfort and disability of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you can't outwit it entirely.  Learn more about the first sign that your condition has progressed, and the steps you may need to take.

Advanced lung disease

Although there are many ways to manage the discomfort and disability of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you can't outwit it entirely. Because the disease can be progressive and because lung function declines with age, a day may come when your medications no longer work as well as they used to, and other strategies such as exercise won't give you the energy for many of your activities. At this point, you'll probably need to make changes at home, such as having someone help you with meals and personal care. You'll also need to plan for an emergency in case you have to go to the hospital. If you haven't done so already, this is the time to consider your long-term care options (see "Advance care planning").

Chances are that the first sign that you have advanced COPD is that you find it consistently harder to breathe. You breathe rapidly even when you do pursed-lip breathing. You may also have trouble saying a long sentence or even laughing because you don't have enough air. You may find it hard to sleep because of pronounced shortness of breath. The lack of oxygen in the brain can make you confused and interfere with your memory. Sustained difficulty breathing can lead to serious complications: cor pulmonale, a weakening of the heart's right pumping chamber; congestive heart failure, the inability of the heart to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs; or acute respiratory failure, the inability to breathe enough air to supply the body with vital oxygen and remove high levels of carbon dioxide.

Reference: Lungs, Breathing and Respiration section on Better Medicine


Did You Know?

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive disease that makes it difficult to breathe.

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