COPD: What You Need to Know

Learn the symptoms of this lung disease before it's too late.

COPD: What You Need to Know

What is COPD?

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is a disease of the lungs. There are two main types of COPD that you may have heard of: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is when your airways are inflamed and secrete mucus, leading to a productive cough. Emphysema is when the smaller airways are destroyed by some sort of irritant, typically cigarette smoke. Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema cause difficulty breathing, wheezing, and they can lead to more serious problems. COPD and asthma share similarities and can sometimes have similar symptoms.

What causes COPD?

COPD is almost entirely caused by cigarette smoking. When you smoke cigarettes or other forms of tobacco, the inhaled smoke and chemicals cause inflammation and damage your airways. In the developing world, inhalation of burning/cooking fuel may also lead to COPD. Altogether, inhalation of smoke and other irritants causes 99 percent of COPD cases. The remaining one percent of cases are caused by a genetic disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

How can I protect myself against COPD?

Prevention of COPD is straightforward: do not smoke. If you are already a smoker, the best way to protect yourself against COPD is to stop smoking. Talk to your doctor about different methods and medications that may help you quit smoking.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

The symptoms of COPD include coughing, wheezing, mucous production, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. This may lead to decreased exercise tolerance, blueness of the lips or fingers, and fatigue.

What is a COPD exacerbation?

A COPD exacerbation is when you have a known history of COPD and your symptoms get worse. COPD exacerbations may be precipitated by a viral or bacterial illness. In an exacerbation, you may be more short of breath and have more mucous production with coughing. Hospitalization is often required for treatment of COPD exacerbations and additional medications may need to be given until the exacerbation is over.

How is COPD diagnosed?

COPD can be diagnosed with the help of a chest x-ray, a blood test, and pulmonary function tests. Pulmonary function tests are a way to check your lung capacity and function to determine if you have COPD or a number of other lung diseases.

How is COPD treated?

There is no cure for COPD. Treatment is instead focused on managing your symptoms and making you as comfortable as possible. Smoking cessation is highly recommended for anybody diagnosed with COPD. Symptoms can be managed at home with the use of inhalers like bronchodilators (which relax your airways) and steroids (which reduce inflammation). Depending on the severity, you may also need to take oral steroids or certain types of other oral medications. In some cases, you may need to use supplemental oxygen.

COPD by the Numbers:

• 16 Million – The number of people in the United States diagnosed with COPD.

• 3 Million – The number of people who died of COPD in 2015.

• 3rd Place – COPD is the third most common cause of death worldwide.

• 25% – The percentage of smokers who eventually develop COPD.

• $50 Billion – The estimated cost of COPD in the United States in 2010.

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