COPD is a disease that affects the lungs. It includes several progressive lung diseases all relating to breathlessness:
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), up to 9 out of 10 COPD-related deaths are caused by smoking.
Causes of COPD
While it is not contagious, there are direct causes of COPD, including some that people can avoid:
Smoking significantly increases a person’s risk of developing COPD.
Inhaling smoke leads to inflammation in the bronchi, which are tubes that connect the windpipe to the lungs. This inflammation destroys the cilia (minute hairs that line the bronchi).
These hairs are essential for preventing infection as they trap germs, dust, and other particles before they reach the lungs. If cilia are missing or damaged, a person is at a higher risk of developing infections in the lungs.
While smoking or being a former smoker are the main reasons for developing COPD, some people also develop it as the result of exposure to other lung irritants including:
- second-hand smoke
- workplace dust or other pollutants
- smoke from burning fuel for cooking or heating
- air pollution
- specific chemicals
- frequent chest or lung infections as a child
Some people have a rare genetic version of COPD called alpha-1-deficiency-related emphysema.
What are the main symptoms of COPD?
A persistent cough is a potential symptom of COPD.
People with COPD experience a gradual loss of lung function and an increase in breathlessness.
However, they may not notice this slow decrease in lung function or recognize COPD symptoms until the disease has reached a severe stage.
COPD ranges in severity from mild to very severe.
People with mild COPD may experience the following symptoms:
- a cough, sometimes known as a “smoker’s cough”
- phlegm, mucus in the throat
- slight breathing limitations
In moderate COPD people may experience:
- more phlegm or mucus
- a cough
- increased difficulty breathing
People with severe COPD often have difficulty carrying out day-to-day activities. One study looking at the frequency of common symptoms in people with severe COPD found the following:
- 72.5 percent had dyspnea, shortness of breath
- 63.6 percent had mucus or phlegm
- 58.7 percent had a cough
- 41.7 percent had wheezing
- 28.3 percent had tightness in the chest
Some people with very severe COPD have trouble getting enough oxygen all the time. They may require oxygen therapy, which involves getting supplemental oxygen from an oxygen tank.
Risk factors to avoid
- Smoking: Smoking is the leading risk factor for COPD and may cause other health issues. COPD is not reversible, but quitting smoking at any stage can help to reduce symptoms, slow progression, and improve quality of life.
- Lung irritants: Staying away from pollution, smoke, and chemicals where possible can help lessen symptoms.
- Viruses and colds: As people with COPD have a weaker resistance to infections, taking steps to remain healthy, such as practicing regular hand-washing and getting enough sleep, may help prevent infections from viruses and bacteria. The NHLBI recommend getting a flu shot each year.
Treatments for COPD
Doctors will suggest different treatment plans according to the stage of a person’s COPD, but they may recommend the following:
The first course of action for anyone with COPD is to limit exposure to anything that might make the disease worse, such as smoke and other airborne irritants.
A doctor may recommend antibiotics to help prevent infection.
There are a variety of medications that can treat COPD symptoms. COPD medication cannot reverse the damage to the lungs and air tubes but can help with symptoms.
Common medications include:
- bronchodilators, which relax the muscles in the lungs making it easier to breathe
- anti-inflammatories, including corticosteroids or steroids, can reduce swelling, inflammation, and mucus
- antibiotics or vaccinations, which help to manage bacterial and viral infections
Lung rehabilitation centers around exercises and education to help people with COPD be more active. Doctors typically offer this treatment to people who have moderate to severe COPD that interferes with daily activities. Doctors sometimes call it pulmonary rehabilitation.
Supplemental oxygen may be beneficial in some cases. Doctors prescribe oxygen to those who experience severe breathlessness.
In rare cases, doctors might recommend surgery to help treat people who have very severe COPD.
When to see a doctor
Anyone who experiences any symptoms of COPD should see a doctor immediately. Getting a diagnosis for COPD means that a doctor can recommend a suitable treatment to slow the progression of the disease.
COPD is not contagious.
Treating COPD starts with reducing exposure to lung irritants. Quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to smoke and other irritants help the lungs stay healthy. This reduces symptoms and can likely improve a person’s quality of life.
Talking to a doctor about COPD is a good idea for anyone who has symptoms.