What is COPD?

What is COPD?COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.  It’s estimated that 16 million Americans are currently diagnosed with it and that another 14 million have not been diagnosed.  COPD causes a significant amount of hospitalizations and doctors’ visits each year, yet many people don’t know much about it.  It tends to be overlooked in terms of health care screenings, so patients should be aware of the signs and symptoms.

COPD is an umbrella term used to describe lung disease associated with airflow obstruction.  These diseases most commonly include emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  Patients with COPD are able to get air into their lungs but the lungs are not able to move that air out.  In normal lungs, the alveoli are the air sacs at the end of the bronchial tree.  This is where the oxygen passes from the lung tissue into the blood stream.  The alveoli are supposed to be elastic, so they expand and contract with each breath, moving air back and forth.  In COPD patients, the alveoli are damaged so they lose their elasticity.  Air gets in, but the alveoli don't contract normally to help move air back out.

Symptoms of COPD are shortness of breath, chronic coughing or wheezing, however symptoms are subtle.  By the time a patient visits a doctor, they’ve probably already had the disease for many years.  People tend to adjust their lifestyles to fit their symptoms.  Without realizing it, they may be avoiding things like climbing stairs, walking long distances or other activities that require exertion.  This is unfortunate because exercise can help improve lung function and slow the progression of the disease.

The most common cause of COPD is tobacco abuse, so the most important step in treatment is to avoid all tobacco, even second-hand smoke.  The World Health Organization estimates that smoking is associated with a ten to 43 percent increase in risk of COPD in adults.  Some causes of COPD can be due to genetic problems or other environmental exposures.  People who work around or near biomass fuels are also at an increased risk.  It’s estimated that there are 400,000 deaths per year just from exposure to these fuels.

Other treatments include inhaled medications that can relax airways and allow air to pass through easier.  Once lung function is lost, it cannot be restored.  However, treatment can improve exercise tolerance, cut down on the number of flare-ups, slow the disease progression and prolong life.

Although COPD never goes away, it can be managed once detected.  With proper treatment and avoidance of irritants, patients can delay disease progression and lead normal, active lives for many years.  Early detection is crucial, though, so if you feel you have symptoms of COPD, see your doctor soon.