Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, is a lung disease that obstructs airflow. It is a progressive condition involving a constant obstruction of the airways, which results in difficulty breathing. COPD usually includes emphysema or chronic obstructive bronchitis or both. Seventy five percent of those afflicted with COPD are cigarette smokers. In some cases, however, COPD can be caused by other environmental irritants, such as air pollution and chemical fumes. This condition affects nearly 12 million people and is the third most common cause of death in the United States.
Causes of COPD
Most cases of COPD are caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants such as cigarette smoke, secondhand smoke, air pollution and chemical fumes that damage the lungs and irritate the airways. A family history of COPD is also a cause.
Most cases of COPD occur in people over the age of 40. Some younger patients may be diagnosed with COPD due to a deficiency of alpha-1 antitrypsin, a genetic condition.
Symptoms of COPD
Patients with COPD often experience the following symptoms:
- Chronic cough with mucus (smoker‘s cough)
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
- Chronic bronchitis
These symptoms are common among many smokers, and may be present years before COPD is diagnosed. Patients with COPD may also experience frequent colds or flu, along with swelling in the ankles, feet and legs in severe cases. Symptoms worsen over time, and may require a hospital stay if they become severe enough or do not respond to treatment.
Diagnosis of COPD
After an evaluation of your symptoms and a review of your medical history, your doctor may perform lung function tests or a chest X-ray to diagnose COPD. A lung function test measures how much air you can breathe in and out, how fast you breathe and how well the lungs carry oxygen to the blood. The most common lung function test is called spirometry.
Treatment of COPD
COPD is a chronic condition and there is no cure currently available. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease, allowing patients to enjoy an active and healthy life. The most important step that patients can take in treating COPD is to quit smoking. Your doctor may prescribe medication for the following:
- Relaxing the muscles
- Relieving inflammation around the airways
- Oxygen therapy
- Pulmonary rehabilitation
Surgery may be performed for severe cases of emphysema to clear the airways of larger obstructions.