COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a common illness, afflicting more than 24 million people across the U.S. Many, however, may not realize they have early symptoms of the disease. Early screening is important so those who suffer from COPD can get therapy and medication before there’s a major loss of lung function.
Image via Hollywood Health Services
What Is COPD?
Your lungs have small cavities or sacs known as alveoli. Each time you breathe, they fill up with air. The oxygen in the alveoli goes into your bloodstream, while your lungs push out stale air. When lungs are irritated by smoke or other irritants, they become damaged and can’t perform their function. Walls between the alveoli become damaged and break down. Airways swell and mucus builds up, making it more difficult to exhale stale air. When this happens, lungs are unable to provide enough oxygen.
Usually, this process happens progressively over time. Some of the symptoms include breathlessness, wheezing, a tight chest and coughing.
The term COPD is used to describe several diseases, including emphysema, asthma, chronic bronchitis and some forms of bronchiectasis, which is a condition where the airways of the lungs are stretched abnormally wide.
What Causes COPD?
This disease is caused by a number of factors. Some individuals are born with a genetic predisposition to COPD, having alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency or AATD, a protein found in the bloodstream of healthy people. When this protein isn’t present, the lungs are harmed by white blood cells and deterioration occurs. Approximately 3 out of every 100 people with this disease have this genetic condition.
Other factors are mostly environmental, with tobacco smoke being the main irritant for 90 percent of those with the disease. COPD may occur in smokers or former smokers, usually around the age of 40 or older, and those who inhale secondhand cigarette smoke are also at risk. People who are regularly exposed to pollutants, such as fumes and chemicals at home or in the workplace, are also at risk.
Anyone who develops some of the symptoms mentioned above or who otherwise thinks he or she may be at risk for this breathing disease should be tested. A noninvasive spirometry test can tell how well the lungs are doing their job. The patient blows air out of the lungs into a spirometer, which will calculate the amount of air blown out the first second, as well as how much is blown out in six or more seconds. If a patient has COPD, the test can indicate what stage it’s in.
Those with symptoms of pulmonary disease that aren’t specifically COPD may also take the bronchodilator reversibility test, which can tell if lung function is improving with medication. A chest X-ray and a high resolution computed tomography (CT) of the chest will also help with further analysis. Symptoms may worsen faster if not treated properly.
Lower the Risks
While you can’t undo the damage that’s already occurred to the lungs, there are things you can do to mitigate the symptoms and slow the progress of the disease.
- If you smoke, stop. Take measures to isolate yourself from smoke produced by others in your household.
- Avoid breathing in fumes, dust, chemicals and other irritants whenever possible. Switch to all-natural cleaning and beauty products to reduce your exposure to toxins in the home.
- An ordinary cold can be serious for sufferers of lung disease, as it can cause further damage and even lead to pneumonia. Try to avoid being around those who are sick. Wash your hands thoroughly, and make sure your eating unprocessed, anti-inflammatory foods to keep your immune system strong.
- Get tested. Proper medication and oxygen therapy can mitigate damage to the lungs and perhaps slow the advance of the disease.
If you have the disease and have already been prescribed medication and oxygen therapy, you might also seek physical therapy. While you may have to start out slowly, you can progress to where you’re stronger and breathing better. Other types of therapy that may be prescribed are breathing techniques, relaxation, nutrition, oxygen and learning how to do normal tasks with more economy of breathing, and with less exertion and shortness of breath. Therapy may also help individuals deal with the depression, anxiety and panic attacks, which can all be a side effect of lung disease.