What is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a group of progressive lung diseases. The most common are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Many people with COPD have both of these conditions. Emphysema slowly destroys air sacs in your lungs, which interferes with outward air flow. Bronchitis causes inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which allows mucus to build up. COPD makes it harder to breathe. Symptoms may be mild at first, beginning with coughing and shortness of breath. As it progresses, it can become increasingly difficult to breathe. You may experience wheezing and tightness in the chest. Some people with COPD have exacerbations, or flare-ups of severe symptoms.
What are the Symptoms of COPD?
At first, symptoms of COPD can be quite mild. You might be inclined to dismiss them as a cold.Early symptoms include:
- occasional shortness of breath, especially after exercise
- mild but recurrent cough
- needing to clear your throat often, especially first thing in the morning
You might start making subtle changes, such as avoiding stairs and skipping physical activities.
Symptoms can get progressively worse and harder to ignore. As the lungs become more damaged, you may experience:
- shortness of breath, after even mild exercise such as walking up a flight of stairs
- wheezing, or noisy breathing
- chest tightness
- chronic cough, with or without mucus
- need to clear mucus from your lungs every day
- frequent colds, flu, or other respiratory infections
- lack of energy
In later stages of COPD, symptoms may also include:
- swelling of the feet, ankles, or legs
- weight loss
What Causes COPD?
In developed countries like the United States, the single biggest cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. About 90 percent of people who have COPD are smokers or former smokers. Among smokers, 20 to 30 percent develop COPD. Many others develop lung conditions or have reduced lung function.
Most people with COPD are over 40 years old and have at least some history of smoking. The longer you smoke, the greater your risk of COPD is. In addition to cigarette smoke, cigar smoke, pipe smoke, and secondhand smoke can cause COPD.
Your risk of COPD is even greater if you have asthma and smoke.You can also develop COPD if you’re exposed to chemicals and fumes in the workplace. Long-term exposure to air pollution and inhaling dust can also cause COPD.
How to Diagnose COPD
There’s no single test for COPD. Diagnosis is based on symptoms, a physical exam, and test results.When you visit the doctor, be sure to mention all of your symptoms. Tell your doctor if:
- you’re a smoker, or have smoked in the past
- you’re exposed to lung irritants on the job
- you’re exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke
- there’s a family history of COPD
- you have asthma or other respiratory conditions
- you take over-the-counter or prescription medications
Treatment can ease symptoms, prevent complications, and generally slow disease progression. Your healthcare team may include a lung specialist (pulmonologist) and physical and respiratory therapists. Certain lifestyle changes may also help alleviate your symptoms or provide relief.