What is COPD?

COPD stands for ‘Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease’. It is a progressive disease of the lungs which means the symptoms are likely to get worse over time. If you have been diagnosed with COPD it means that you have damage to the small airways in your lungs. Damage to the airways means they become narrower, making it harder for air to get in and out of the lungs. This damage and narrowing causes the symptoms of COPD which are:

  • Increasing shortness of breath
  • a cough that lasts a long time (more than 3 months)
  • Increased mucus production by your lungs
  • wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe)
  • chest tightness
  • A chronic cough that may produce mucus (sputum) that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
  • Swelling in ankles, feet or legs
  • Having to clear your throat first thing in the morning, due to excess mucus in your lungs

The most common symptom of COPD is feeling short of breath. Simple everyday activities, like walking short distances or climbing up a few stairs, can cause someone with COPD to feel short of breath. Feeling short of breath is not a normal sign of ageing and ignoring it could delay a diagnosis and treatment. Talk to your health professional if you are short of breath when doing simple chores and activities.

COPD is an umbrella term for a group of disorders that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma that is not fully reversible. People with COPD can have one or more of these conditions.

At present, there is no cure for COPD as the damage to your lungs cannot be reversed. However, COPD symptoms are treatable.  People can live for many years with COPD and enjoy life.

COPD is a progressive disease, which means the symptoms are likely to get worse over time. You can take steps now to control the symptoms and slow down damage to your lungs so that you can continue to enjoy your life. If you are a smoker, stopping smoking is the most important thing you can do for your health.

What causes COPD?

The most common cause of COPD is long-term cigarette smoking. In the developing world, COPD often occurs in people exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes.  The more you smoke, the greater your risk of developing COPD.

Only about 20 to 30 percent of chronic smokers may develop clinically apparent COPD, although many smokers with long smoking histories may develop reduced lung function. Some smokers develop less common lung conditions. They may be misdiagnosed as having COPD until a more thorough evaluation is performed.

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Other causes of COPD include:

  • Second-hand smoke. Some non-smokers can develop COPD from being exposed to second-hand smoke, often at home or at work.
  • Workplace exposure to dusts and chemicals. Certain chemicals and dust (such as coal dust) can contribute to the development of COPD.
  • Genetics. An uncommon inherited genetic disorder, alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, is known to cause COPD. This disorder can be diagnosed by a blood test.
  • Frequent lung infections as a child. Evidence suggests that frequent lung infections as a child, especially before 2 years of age, can increase the risk of developing COPD as an adult.

Not everyone who smokes develops COPD, and non-smokers can also get COPD. However, only one in five smokers will get significant COPD.  In some cases, the cause is unknown.

COPD develops over time. In most cases, COPD is diagnosed in people aged over 35 to 40 years old.

It is very important to quit smoking if you haven’t! Quitting smoking helps slow the disease. It makes treatment more effective.

Not all COPD is the same

There are different types of COPD. Each type may affect how well different treatments work, how your symptoms affect your everyday life, and how they progress. If you have another health condition in addition to COPD (co-morbidity), such as high blood pressure, heart disease, heartburn, depression, or diabetes, this can also affect your COPD and how it is managed.

Here are some things that can help determine your particular type of COPD. Taking these things into consideration can be useful in addition to your spirometry numbers and other factors.

  • Do you have a cough? If so, do you cough up mucus on most days for at least three months in a period of at least two years?
    • If yes, you may have a chronic bronchitis type of COPD that will respond to different medicines.
  • Are your lungs stretched out and larger than normal?
    • If so, this may be more of an emphysema type of COPD. Sometimes it is possible to decrease the size of the big, stretched out places in your lungs.

COPD medicines and treatments

There is no cure for COPD, but medicines and treatments are available to help relieve your symptoms and prevent flare-ups (exacerbations).

If you have COPD and you smoke, quitting smoking is the best thing you can do to feel better.

Other things that can help you to breathe more easily and improve your quality of life are:

  • medicines and inhalers to help make breathing easier and prevent exacerbations
  • pulmonary rehabilitation, a specialized program of exercise and education that will help improve your symptoms and reduce your risk of going to hospital
  • regular vaccinations against influenza and pneumococcal infections
  • oxygen therapy if you have advanced lung disease.

Your health professional may also recommend exercise training, breathing exercises or chest physiotherapy. Surgery is an option for only a very small number of people.

Outlook for COPD

The outlook for COPD varies from person to person. The condition can’t be cured or reversed, but for many people treatment can help keep it under control so it doesn’t severely limit their daily activities.

But in some people COPD may continue to get worse despite treatment, eventually having a significant impact on their quality of life and leading to life-threatening problems.