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Getting to Know the Basics about COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, is a chronic lung disease affecting approximately 24 million Americans. The term COPD encompasses a group of inflammatory lung diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Even though people with COPD have a higher risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and other conditions, the condition can be treated and managed in a way that allows most people to control symptoms and maintain a relatively high quality of life.

Causes of COPD

The most common cause of COPD is smoking or long-term exposure to second-hand smoke. Approximately 25 percent of smokers will develop clinical symptoms of COPD. Other potential causes of COPD include:

  • Occupational exposure—Individuals who are exposed to dust, vapors, and chemical fumes are at increased risk for COPD due to the chronic irritation of the lungs.
  • Age—COPD is a progressive condition that develops slowly over the years. The majority of individuals with COPD first exhibit symptoms around age 35 to 40.
  • Genetics—A deficiency of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin often runs in families and can lead to COPD. A lack of this protein allows white blood cells to attack the lungs.
Symptoms of COPD

The most common symptom of COPD is shortness of breath. Other symptoms include:

  • A persistent cough
  • Excess mucus production
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Wheezing
  • Lips and fingernail beds appear blue

Physicians typically perform pulmonary function tests, X-rays, CTs, and arterial blood gases to confirm a diagnosis COPD.

COPD Exacerbations

It is not uncommon for individuals with COPD to experience exacerbations during which their symptoms temporarily worsen. Exacerbations may be triggered by other illnesses, environmental exposures, and even weather changes. During an exacerbation, an individual with COPD may require antibiotics, supplemental oxygen, or even hospitalization. People with COPD are encouraged to get annual flu vaccines and a pneumonia vaccine to reduce the likelihood of an exacerbation.

Common COPD Treatments

A variety of medications are available to treat COPD symptoms by relaxing the airway and decreasing inflammation, including:

  • Bronchodilators
  • Inhaled or oral steroids
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors
  • Theophylline

In addition to medication, COPD patients may require additional therapies, including supplemental oxygen or pulmonary rehabilitation.

Living with COPD

The most important thing anyone can do to prevent or slow the progression of COPD is to stop smoking. Other steps that can reduce the severity of symptoms include:

  • Exercising regularly to build endurance and strengthen respiratory muscles.
  • Drinking plenty of water and using a humidifier to help clear excess mucus from the lungs.
  • Speaking to a doctor or respiratory therapist about relaxation and controlled breathing techniques that can prevent shortness of breath.
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