What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition in which some of your airways are permanently blocked. COPD makes it harder for you to breathe. It causes strain on and enlargement of your heart (cor pulmonale) and increased blood pressure in your lungs (pulmonary hypertension).
How does it occur?
There are two main types of COPD:
- Chronic bronchitis (inflamed airways)
- Emphysema (damage to the lung tissue)
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema result from irritation of your airways over a long time, usually from smoking and sometimes from air pollution. Other causes are on-the-job exposure to irritants such as dust or chemicals or frequent lung infections.
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema can occur separately but they often develop together. In chronic bronchitis, the insides of the airways thicken and swell. This makes the passageway for air inside the airways smaller. The damaged airways make more mucus, which can block the airways and make it hard to breathe. In emphysema, the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs may become badly damaged or destroyed and lose their ability to stretch (get bigger and smaller). This makes it harder for you to breathe out carbon dioxide after breathing in air. As the carbon dioxide collects in your lungs, there is less room for oxygen to be breathed in.
COPD is not contagious. You cannot give it to someone or get it from someone else.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of COPD include:
- Deep, persistent cough that produces lots of mucus (sputum)
- Thick sputum that is hard to cough up
- Shortness of breath, trouble breathing
- Rapid breathing
- Blue-purple color of the skin (cyanosis), especially of the hands, feet and lips
- Weight loss
- Frequent lung infections
- Swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet
In the early stages of the disease, you may not have any symptoms.
How is it diagnosed?
Your health care provider will ask you about:
- Your symptoms and if you are less active because of the symptoms
- Your smoking habits
- Exposure to other people's smoke (secondhand smoke) and other irritants such as aerosol sprays, industrial chemicals, and air pollution
- Your medical history, for example, if you have had asthma
Your health care provider will examine you. You may have the following tests:
- A pulmonary function test called spirometry (in which you breathe into a tube to measure airflow into and out of your lungs to see how well your lungs are working)
- Chest X-ray
- Blood tests
- Lab tests of sputum
How is it treated?
The damage to your lungs cannot be reversed, so treatment aims to:
- Relieve symptoms to help you breathe better and feel better
- Help you be more physically active
- Treat infections when they happen
- Help prevent complications
- Help prevent the condition from getting worse
For smokers, the most important part of treatment is to quit smoking. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to stop smoking. You might find it helpful to join a quit-smoking program, or to use nicotine patches or gum.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe:
- Medicine that relaxes and opens the airways (called a bronchodilator). This makes it easier to breathe. Some forms of this medicine are taken as pills or liquid. Some are inhaled. Some need to be used with a nebulizer. A nebulizer is a machine used to inhale moisturized medicine through a face mask or breathing tube
- Steroid medicines to reduce inflammation
- Antibiotics to treat bacterial infection
- Medicine (called an expectorant) that loosens the mucus and helps you cough it up