COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe due to lung damage, inflammation, or overproduction of mucus. 16 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. While there is no cure, making lifestyle changes and receiving treatments can help slow the progress of the disease, and provide some comfort to those suffering from COPD.
What Causes COPD?
When you breathe in, oxygen flows through the airways in your lungs into delicate, stretchy air sacs called alveoli. The oxygen is then transferred into blood vessels around the alveoli and sent to vital organs around the body.
Lungs that have been damaged by COPD can develop two conditions that make breathing more difficult. Chronic bronchitis causes the airways to become inflamed and clogged with mucus. With emphysema, the delicate air sacs lose their stretchiness and rupture, forming larger air sacs that are unable to hold as much oxygen.
In the United States, smoking is the main cause of COPD. Long term exposure to lung irritants like air pollution, chemical fumes, and secondhand smoke, is also a risk factor. A genetic condition called alpha-1 antitypsin deficiency might cause COPD, but that is very rare.
Common Symptoms of COPD
COPD is most commonly diagnosed in middle-aged adults. Most of the symptoms are similar to other respiratory conditions, which can make them harder to diagnose.
Common symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness of the chest
- An ongoing dry or wet cough
- Wheezing or whistling when you breathe
These symptoms will worsen as the lungs become more damaged. Severe symptoms that may require treatment at a hospital include losing weight and muscle endurance, not being able to catch your breath or even talk, a very rapid heartbeat, or your lips or fingertips turning blue or gray.
Treating and Care for COPD
The best way to prevent or slow the symptoms of COPD is to avoid lung irritants. Air pollution and chemical fumes should be avoided whenever possible. If you are a smoker and have been diagnosed with COPD, quit smoking immediately. If you find it hard to quit on your own, consider joining a support group. Your doctor can provide products and point you to programs that can make quitting easier.
COPD isn’t contagious and there is no cure. But there are ways to manage your symptoms so you can live better. First, talk with your doctor about what treatment is right for you, how to prepare for emergencies, and which diseases you could have an increased risk for.
Develop an emotional support team. Let your friends or family know how you feel. You could even join a support group to see how other people cope with living with COPD. Find simpler ways to do daily tasks, and ask for help to make things in your house more accessible. Make sure to follow a meal plan that will get you the right amount of nutrients every day. By sticking to your treatment and making these lifestyle changes, you can stay more active and feel better.