COPD: Nope, it’s not a trendy new cop drama on your favorite streaming platform. COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It’s an umbrella term that includes and describes progressive lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma.
While COPD cannot be cured, treatments are available to help slow the progression and control symptoms. Read more below to discover the causes of COPD, COPD symptoms, treatments for COPD, and more.
COPD is commonly the result of long-term smoking, but non-smokers can develop the condition if they’re over-exposed to lung-damaging irritants. In addition to cigarette smoke, common COPD-causing lung irritants include cigar smoke, pipe smoke, and other types of tobacco smoke (both direct exposure and secondhand exposure); along with air pollution, chemical fumes, or heavy dust in the environment or workplace.
In rare cases, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) can cause COPD. About 1–5% of COPD patients are estimated to have AATD.
Additionally, some people with asthma can develop COPD. Inflammation from asthma-related COPD can usually be reversed with proper treatment.
Risk Factors for COPD
The primary demographic of people who are at risk of developing COPD are smokers—a high percentage of COPD sufferers smoke or used to smoke. Among smokers, people with a family history of COPD have a greater chance of developing the disease.
Another risk factor for COPD is long-term exposure to lung irritants (as outlined above.) COPD typically presents in people 40+ years of age. Usually, if a person younger than 40 presents with COPD, they have a predisposing health issue—such as AATD.
Symptoms of COPD can be tricky, as they often mimic the symptoms of other respiratory diseases and conditions. Some of the telltale signs and symptoms of COPD are:
- Increased breathlessness
- Chest tightness
- Ongoing cough or mucus-producing cough (often called a “smoker’s cough”)
- Wheezing/whistling/squeaky sound when breathing
Some people who suffer from COPD experience frequent colds or respiratory infections.
Not all of these symptoms mean that you have COPD, and not everyone who has COPD will experience all of these symptoms. If you have a family history of COPD, smoke, or are concerned that you might have COPD, call your doctor for a full examination.
When diagnosing COPD, your physician will ask your symptoms, inquire into family and personal medical histories, and want to know if you currently smoke or did so in the past. They may ask if you’ve been in long-term contact with lung irritants. Pay close attention to your cough: how long you’ve been coughing, how often you cough, and whether or not you produce mucus when coughing. Your doctor will perform a physical examination that includes listening to your chest with a stethoscope, and may order one or more of the following pulmonary function tests if COPD is suspected:
- Spirometry: this is a painless test where you blow as hard as you can into a tube connected to a machine (a spirometer). The machine measures how much air you breathe out, as well as how fast you can blow the air.
- Chest x-ray
- Chest CT scan
COPD is a chronic, progressive lung disease, and prognoses vary based on the stage of the disease. COPD staging is done using the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) System. COPD stages are as follows:
- Stage 1: Very mild
- Stage 2: Moderate
- Stage 3: Severe
- Stage 4: Very severe
Typically, people with Stage 4 COPD are at the highest risk of experiencing life-threatening flare-ups.
While there is no cure for COPD, many treatments are available to increase quality of life, slow the progression of the disease, and ease symptoms.
Your physician will work closely with you to develop a COPD treatment plan to maximize your quality of life and minimize symptoms and flare-ups. With a proper COPD treatment plan, you can:
- Slow the progression of COPD
- Improve your overall health
- Increase your tolerance for exercise and ability to stay active
- Alleviate your symptoms
COPD treatment options include:
The biggest lifestyle change that can help treat and manage your COPD is to quit smoking. Additionally, try to avoid secondhand smoke and places high in possible triggers: dusts, fumes, or other irritants that can cause further lung damage and COPD flare-ups.
COPD may inhibit your ability to exercise, however, physical activity can help strengthen your airway muscles and improve your health—so talk to your doctor to develop a sustainable exercise plan.
Medication may also help treat your COPD. These medications include:
- Combination of bronchodilators/inhaled steroids
Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program that helps people with chronic breathing problems.Therapies may include exercise, nutritional and psychological counseling, and disease management training.
Getting annual flu and pneumonia vaccines can vastly reduce your risk of contracting both the flu and pneumonia—both of which can cause complications in COPD patients and further damage the lungs. Having COPD can increase your chance of contracting pneumonia, and getting the vaccine on an annual basis can help protect you against the disease.
COPD can affect the levels of oxygen in your blood. Oxygen therapy can increase your oxygen levels, helping you feel better. During oxygen treatment, oxygen is delivered through a mask or nasal prongs. Some COPD patients need continuous oxygen, while others only need it at specific intervals throughout the day.
In some cases, surgery may benefit COPD sufferers—but this is typically a last resort for people who have severe symptoms and haven’t benefited from any of the aforementioned treatments. Some of the COPD surgeries include:
- Bullectomy: a bullectomy is when a doctor removes one or more enlarged bullae (large air spaces that form when the walls of lung air sacs are destroyed) that have formed in the lungs.
- Lung volume reduction surgery: during this procedure, a surgeon removes damaged tissue from the lungs.
- Lung transplant: during a lung transplant, a surgeon removes your damaged lung and replaces it with a healthy lung taken from an organ donor.
The Lung Docs: Specialized Pulmonary Care
The Lung Docs provides specialized, state-of-the-art pulmonary care to our patients with COPD in Chattanooga and the surrounding Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia areas.
Dr. Mike’s Approach
I’m Dr. Mike Czarnecki, “The Lung Doc,” and I’m trained in all areas of pulmonary health, including the diagnosis and treatment of COPD. I will work with you to formulate a COPD treatment plan so you can live, laugh, love, and breathe better again! To get started, schedule an appointment online or call our office to speak to someone directly. I can’t wait to meet you!