What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) is an umbrella term for a variety of disorders that are described as progressive lung diseases. These include diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma and some forms of bronchiectasis. COPD affects approximately 24 million patients and is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Many of these individuals have symptoms and are completely unaware of it or mistake the symptoms for normal symptoms of the ageing process. Early screening is imperative to identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.
Common symptoms of COPD include:
- Tightness in the chest
- Frequent coughing (either with or without mucus)
- Increased breathlessness
- Difficulty breathing
There are several risk factors associated with COPD, which include the following:
- Smoking: COPD is most common in people over the age of 40 who have a history of smoking, whether they are current smokers or have smoked in the past. Not everyone with COPD has smoked, however approximately 90 percent of COPD patients have smoked at one point in their lives.
- Second-hand smoke: While second-hand smoke does not cause the amount of damage to the lungs that direct smoking does, it may still cause lasting effects and symptoms in individuals, especially if those people are exposed to second-hand smoke for long periods of time.
- Pollution: COPD can develop in people who have long-term exposure to harmful pollutants. These can include chemicals, dust or fumes that can be found in some workplace environments or in large cities and industrial areas.
- Genetics: Even if a patient has never had exposure to one of the factors listed above, they may still develop COPD based on genetics. Alpha-1 Anitrypsin Deficiency (AATD) is a commonly known genetic risk factor for emphysema. Alpha-1 Anitrypsin-related COPD is due to a deficiency of the protein Alpha-1 Anitrypsin in the bloodstream. Without this protein, white blood cells begin to harm the lungs, which causes deterioration.
- Asthma: Refractory asthma is listed as a type of COPD. An asthma patient is listed as refractory when they experience chronic and persistent symptoms, have frequent asthma attacks or experience low lung function despite the use of asthma medications.
COPD is diagnosed based upon a combination of clinical history and testing. Your doctor will ask you questions about your family history and your personal health history and activities. Testing may include spirometry, in which you blow into a mouthpiece connected to machinery to test lung function. This is often the first test you will undergo if your doctor is assessing you for COPD. Other tests include chest X-rays and an arterial blood gas test, which will show how well your lungs move oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide from your blood.
There are a variety of treatments available for patients with COPD depending on the severity of their condition. Common treatments include medication and pulmonary rehabilitation, which combines education, exercise training and nutrition advice. Later stages may require patients to use supplemental oxygen. In very severe cases, surgery may be needed to improve breathing. However, this is in very extreme cases.