Tightness in the chest, wheezing and a persistent cough can be signs of COPD, which is a chronic lung disease. What causes COPD, what happens to your lungs and how is it treated? Here are answers to some common questions.
COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which refers to a collection of different lung conditions that make it difficult to breathe and cause permanent damage to the airways.
It tends to develop gradually over a period of years, with the airways becoming inflamed (swollen) and obstructed, making it harder to breathe. Smokers are especially at risk for developing the condition, as smoking is the primary cause for COPD.
There is no cure for COPD, and it is progressive – meaning it will get worse over time. However, it may be managed with the right treatment.
The symptoms of COPD develop slowly over time, so many people can go for years without realising they have the condition. This is why it is so important to get any breathing issues checked out by a doctor as soon as you can.
Feeling short of breath and wheezing are two warning signs of potential COPD. Frequent chest infections are also a common symptom, and unsurprisingly people with COPD will often feel tired.
People with the condition commonly develop a chesty cough that produces lots of mucus. As it’s a persistent cough, many people can simply mistake it for a so-called ‘smoker’s cough’.
If you have COPD, you might have emphysema which causes damage to the tiny air sacs inside your lungs over time. Or you might have chronic bronchitis, which causes a long-term phlegmy cough. Both are common in people with COPD.
COPD develops from long-term damage caused to the lungs from inhaling irritants, such as cigarette smoke or harmful chemicals at work. With COPD this damage causes breathing difficulties.
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD – though not all people with COPD have smoked, and not all smokers develop COPD.
The biggest risk factor for COPD is smoking – as many as 75 per cent with COPD have smoked or still smoke. Quitting smoking may help slow the progression of COPD.
Exposure to gases or fumes in the workplace, heavy amounts of second-hand smoke and pollution are also risk factors, as is frequent use of a cooking fire without proper ventilation.
You’re more likely to be diagnosed with COPD if you are over 35, or had chest problems as a child. Susceptibility to COPD can run in families, so if your parents had chest problems, you are at higher risk.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. However, there are many things you can do to cope with symptoms and help ease everyday life.
It is very important to stop smoking if you have COPD, as this is the best way to slow down lung damage. A healthy diet and exercise will also help manage symptoms and make breathing easier.
There are also medications available for COPD patients. Unfortunately, none of the current medications cure COPD but they reduce symptoms. COPD is mostly treated with inhaled medications. Bronchodilators are drugs, usually inhaled, that help relax the airways. They can be short- or long-acting. Anti-inflammatory medication may also help. It is especially important to follow the instructions, use the inhaled therapy as prescribed, and learn to use the inhaler in the correct way.
An important part of the treatment is ‘pulmonary rehabilitation’, which involves a series of exercises, behavioural changes, and education about the disease. With the right kind of diet and daily habits, including an active lifestyle, it is possible to have a high quality of life regardless of the severe condition. In a very small number of cases, surgery or a lung transplant may be considered.
If your doctor suspects COPD, they may ask the patient to do a spirometry test. This is a safe and common test which measures how well the lungs are functioning. It’s used in the diagnosis of COPD and other lung conditions, such as asthma.
Patients are asked to breathe into a tube connected to a machine called a spirometer. This measures how much and how quickly air goes in and out of the lungs.
The symptoms of COPD and asthma are very similar. Some people have one or the other. Some people have both.
With asthma, the narrowing of the airways isn’t permanent. It often comes on when triggered and the airways are irritated by something. Reliever medication will help to fully reopen the airways.
In COPD, the narrowing of the airways is permanent, so symptoms may be constant. With COPD, a reliever may help, but it won’t open the airways fully. That’s why it’s extremely important to quit smoking and plan the care and treatment together with your doctor.
Oxygen therapy is used when the oxygen level in the blood is low. This can happen with some COPD patients who struggle to take in enough oxygen – so it’s not suitable for everyone. Breathing in air that has a higher oxygen concentration can help increase low oxygen levels in the blood.
Many people mistakenly think oxygen therapy helps with breathlessness. It doesn’t. Oxygen therapy helps increase the blood’s oxygen levels, which helps the body, especially the heart, work effectively.
Oxygen therapy at home involves a patient breathing in air via a machine called an oxygen concentrator. The therapy needs to be used for a substantial part of the day to be effective.
It’s very important to only use an oxygen machine if the doctor has prescribed it. It can be dangerous for people who don’t need it.
It is possible to live a productive and happy life with COPD. If you are diagnosed with COPD, it is likely you will need to make some changes to your life, particularly with a progressive disease. It can mean, for instance, starting a new exercise routine to help with medication and treatment.
Getting an early diagnosis can help, and many people want to do what they can to slow the progression of the disease, such as giving up smoking and taking medication properly.
If you suspect you have COPD you should see a doctor without delay. If you are a smoker, it’s a good idea to give up smoking immediately.
The symptoms of COPD can be similar to other lung conditions, so the quicker you get an accurate diagnosis, the quicker you can begin effective treatment. Good management of COPD can slow the progression of the disease and can help ease some of the symptoms, too.
Photo by iStock
Orion invests in research and development of treatment options for people with asthma and COPD while also developing the design and usability of the Easyhaler® inhaler device platform. The focus is on safety and quality in each step of the product life cycle while taking care of the environment. All aspects of sustainability - social, economic and environmental - are carefully considered in the whole product life cycle. Sustainability is entwined in the whole process from R&D through manufacturing, including patient use and the disposal of old inhalers.