What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems.
COPD is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. In people with COPD, the airways (the branching tubes that carry air within the lungs) become narrow and damaged. This makes people feel out of breath and tired.
COPD can be a serious illness. It cannot be cured and it usually gets worse over time. But there are treatments that can help.
In the United States one out of every eighteen patients may have COPD. It is the third leading cause of death.
You might have heard COPD referred to as “chronic bronchitis” or “emphysema.” These are types of COPD.
What causes COPD?
The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Smoke can damage the lungs forever and cause COPD. People can also get COPD from breathing in toxic fumes or gases. In rare cases, COPD is caused by a genetic problem. A blood test can check for this genetic condition.
What are the symptoms of COPD?
At first, COPD often has no symptoms and 50% people never have any. As it gets worse it can make you:
- Feel short of breath, especially with activity.
- Cough and spit up phlegm (mucus).
People who have COPD are also at increased risk for:
- Infections, such as pneumonia
- Lung cancer
- Heart problems
Is there a test for COPD?
Yes. Your doctor or nurse can give you a test called “spirometry” to check for COPD. During spirometry, you take a deep breath and then blow out as fast and hard as you can into a tube. A machine connected to the tube measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs and how fast you can blow.
If the results of your spirometry are not normal, you will try a medicine in an inhaler to see if your breathing gets better. Then after a few minutes, you will repeat the spirometry. This will help the doctor or nurse find out if your problem is caused by COPD or another lung problem, such as asthma. People with asthma usually get normal results after they use an inhaler. People with COPD do not.
Will I need other tests?
Your doctor might order other tests, too. These can check to see if other problems besides COPD might be causing your symptoms. They can also look for some of the problems that COPD can lead to. Tests you might get include:
- A blood test for a genetic problem called “antitrypsin deficiency” that can cause COPD.
- A chest X-ray.
- An electrocardiogram (also called an “ECG” or “EKG”) – This test measures the electrical activity in your heart.
- A low-dose CT scan – This is an imaging test used to screen for lung cancer. (Imaging test that create pictures of the inside of the body) Your doctor or nurse might suggest lung cancer screening depending on your age, how much you have smoked in the past, and whether you still smoke.
Is there anything I can do to feel better?
Yes. Here are 2 important things you should do:
- STOP SMOKING! If you smoke, the most important thing you can do for your COPD is to stop smoking. It does not matter how long you have smoked or how much you smoke. Quitting will slow your disease and help you feel better.
- Get the flu shot every fall, and the two pneumonia vaccines at least once. Infections like the flu and pneumonia can be very hard on your lungs. It’s important to try to prevent them.
How is COPD treated?
There are 4 main types of treatment for COPD:
- Medicines – There are several medicines to treat COPD. Most people use inhalers that help open up their airways or decrease swelling in the airways. Often people need more than one inhaler at a time. You might need to take a steroid medicine in a pill for a flare of COPD. This steroid medicine is not the kind that athletes take to build up muscle.
- Oxygen – If the disease gets worse, you might need to use oxygen. Your doctor or nurse can test your blood oxygen level to see if you need this.
- Pulmonary rehab – In pulmonary rehab, you learn to improve your symptoms in new ways. You learn exercises and ways to breathe that can help ease symptoms. Even if you don’t do a pulmonary rehab program, staying active can help your breathing. Pulmonary rehab improves symptoms, exercise capacity, and quality of life.
- Surgery – Rarely, people with severe COPD will have surgery to remove the most damaged parts of their lung. This surgery can reduce symptoms, but it does not always work.
Can my COPD get worse?
Yes it can get worse and when it does we call it an exacerbation.
An exacerbation of COPD is characterized by an acute increase in symptoms beyond normal day-to-day variation which leads to a change in medication.
You will have to be seen by you health care provider so he can change you medicines to get your better.
Can anything be done to prevent exacerbations?
Several measures have been shown to reduce COPD exacerbations.
- Includes smoking cessation
- Pulmonary rehabilitation
- Proper use of medications (including metered dose inhaler technique)
- Vaccination against seasonal influenza and pneumococcus
The combination of inhaled medications offers the best possibility to reduce the risk of exacerbations requiring hospital admissions. Also it offers benefits on reducing the progression of the COPD and risk of death.
Where to get more medical information?
Your health care provider will be the best source for medical information.
The following organizations also provide reliable health information.
- National Library of Medicine
- (nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/copdchronicobstructivepulmonarydisease.html, available in Spanish)
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
- American Lung Association
- Alpha-1 Foundation
- COPD Foundation
Where can I get assistance with the cost of medications?
This blog is brought to you by Bandera Family Medical Group