Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Overview

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

COPD affects millions of people in the U.S., but what exactly is this disease? In this lesson, you'll learn about COPD, what causes it, and its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.

What Is COPD?

You may not know it, but the third leading cause of death in the U.S. is a disease called COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is an inflammatory lung disease that is caused by long-term exposure to harmful things in the air, such as cigarette smoke, pollution, or fumes from chemicals. COPD affects your ability to breathe and causes coughing that produces lots of mucus, wheezing, tightness in your chest, and shortness of breath. COPD is both chronic and progressive, meaning that it gets worse over time. COPD also puts you at risk for developing other diseases such as heart disease, lung cancer, high blood pressure, and depression from being unable to live your life as you once did before becoming ill.

COPD is an inflammatory, chronic, and progressive disease that affects the lungs and airways.
COPD lung comparison

COPD includes two conditions that might sound more familiar to you. The first is chronic bronchitis, which is when the bronchial tubes (the tubes that carry air to and from the air sacs in the lungs) are chronically irritated or inflamed. This inflammation leads to a thickening of the bronchial tube lining, which leads to mucus forming in the airways. And just like gunk clogs your drain pipes in your house and makes it more difficult for water to flow, mucus clogs your airways and makes it more difficult for air to flow.

The second condition is called emphysema. With this condition, the air sacs themselves are damaged, and they either lose their shape or the walls of the air sacs become damaged and they fuse into larger ones. This may sound like a good thing, but smaller air sacs more efficiently exchange gas in your lungs than larger ones, so when the walls break down and the air sacs merge together, it makes breathing more difficult.

Symptoms of COPD

How do you know if you have COPD? Well, unfortunately some people have the disease and don't know it until major lung damage has occurred. If these people continue to expose their lungs and airways to harmful chemicals, such as continuing to smoke cigarettes, then they will worsen the disease without even realizing it.

COPD may present with many symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, but also depression, fatigue, and weight loss.
symptoms of COPD

Other times people do have symptoms, which include the shortness of breath, coughing with mucus, and tightness of chest we discussed earlier. But there are other symptoms you may experience as well, such as blue lips or fingernail beds, fatigue (a severe lack of energy), weight loss, and numerous respiratory infections. For some people, the symptoms occur all the time, while in others, they may come and go.

Diagnosis & Treatment of COPD

In order to determine if you have COPD you will need to be seen by your doctor. There are special imaging, blood, and lung function tests that can help them diagnose this disease. One of the most common lung function tests is called spirometry, which will measure the amount of air your lungs can hold as well as how well you can blow air from your lungs. This is a test that can help diagnose COPD even if you show no signs or symptoms.

Your doctor may also order a chest x-ray because it can show damage that has occurred in your lungs. A CT scan is another test that may be ordered to see if you have lung cancer, especially if you are a smoker and have COPD.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD, and if a person with COPD continues to expose their lungs to whatever is causing the disease, they will only make it worse. For example, if smoking has led to COPD, you should quit smoking as soon as possible to avoid making yourself even sicker.

In addition to removing the irritant from your life, you may be prescribed medications such as an inhaler that allows the muscles around your airways to relax and makes it easier for you to breathe. You may also be prescribed either a short-acting or long-acting bronchodilator. Short-acting bronchodilators might be used right before you engage in an activity that would stress your airways, while a long-acting bronchodilator might be used every day in addition to immediately before activities.

Your doctor may also decide to prescribe steroids to help treat your COPD, which are either inhaled or taken as pills. If the disease has progressed far enough you may require oxygen therapy, which puts additional oxygen into lungs. In very severe cases, you may need a lung transplant.

The good news is that most people have very mild forms of COPD and live normal lives with these treatments.

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