What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a term used to include progressive lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis or a combination of both. COPD is a disease that makes it difficult for the lungs to empty air from it. This happens as a result of narrow airways that lead to airflow obstruction. In turn, you may experience breathlessness or tiredness as your body tries harder to breathe.
It is caused by an inflammation of the breathing tubes and increased phlegm in the airways. The swelling and phlegm causes the airway to become smaller, simultaneously obstructing the airflow.
Emphysema is a result of damage to the alveoli (air sacs). There are over 300 million air sacs in the lungs and when their walls are damaged they lose their elasticity and trap air inside. This extra air remains in the lungs even after exhalation and an extra effort is required to breathe. This leads to shortness of breath.
Diagnosing the problem
COPD is most common among smokers or those who have smoked in the past. It is also caused by working or having lived in an environment with high exposure to smoke, dust or other fumes. It usually affects adults over the age of 35. A family history of COPD is also a risk factor to be considered.
A common mistake that people make is to assume that the breathlessness and coughing are a mere consequence of aging. In the early stages of COPD, the symptoms are barely noticeable. If you feel that you may have any of the following symptoms, it is imperative that you talk to a doctor. You may ask the doctor about taking a spirometry test. The symptoms are as follows:
- Increased breathlessness
- Frequent coughing
- Tightness in the chest
A spirometry is a simple and painless breathing test used to diagnose COPD. The patient is asked to breath as hard as he can into a machine. The machine measures the amount of air that is being forced out of the lungs in a second and the total amount of air that can be forced out of the lungs. The results from the test tell you whether your airways have narrowed.
There are many modes of treatment for COPD depending on the type that you may be diagnosed with. A few types of treatment are as below:
Bronchodilators: These help to relax your airways and make breathing easier.
Combination inhalers: These include a reliever and a corticosteroid preventer. The reliever keeps the airway open to provide relief and the corticosteroid preventer reduces inflammation in the airways.
Oral Corticosteroids: The are anti-inflammatories that can be used for a short period of time in case of a flare up.
Antibiotics: Used to treat infections caused by bacteria.
Expectorant: Used when there is excessive production of mucous.
Vaccinations: Prevent lung infection from viruses or bacteria.
Pulmonary rehabilitation: This includes exercise training, nutritional advice, education about the condition and counselling.
Breathing exercise: A physiotherapist can help you with breathing exercises that are key to controlling breathlessness associated with COPD. Pursed lip breathing works when there is difficulty breathing. Knowing these exercises helps you to avoid panicking when you feel short of breath.
There is no cure for COPD, however healthy living and taking the following steps can help avoid acute exacerbations:
- Consult your doctor regularly at a scheduled appointment even if you’re feeling fine.
- Wash your hands often for 20 seconds with warm water and mild soap.
- Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer for when you cannot wash your hands.
- Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose in public to help prevent germs from entering your body.
- Stay away from crowds, especially during cold and flu season.
- Get plenty of sleep. When your body is tired, you’re more likely to get sick.
- Drink plenty of water. Thick sticky mucus is more likely to get stuck in your lungs and cause problems.