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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease in which
the lung is damaged, making it hard to breathe. In COPD, the airways-the
tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs-are partly obstructed, making
it difficult to get air in and out.
Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of COPD. Most people with
COPD are smokers or former smokers. Breathing in other kinds of lung irritants,
like pollution, dust, or chemicals over a long period of time may also cause
or contribute to COPD. The airways branch out like an upside-down tree, and
at the end of each branch are many small, balloon-like air sacs. In healthy
people, each airway is clear and open, the air sacs are small and dainty,
and both are elastic and springy. When you breathe in, each air sac fills
up with air, like a small balloon, and when you breathe out, the balloon
deflates and the air goes out. In COPD, the airways and air sacs lose their
shape and become floppy. Less air gets in and less air goes out because:
- The airways and air sacs lose their elasticity (like an old rubber band)
- The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed
- The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed (swollen)
- Cells in the airways make more mucus (sputum) than usual, which tends
to clog the airways.
COPD develops slowly, and it may be many years before you notice symptoms
like feeling short of breath. Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed in middle-aged
or older people.
COPD is a major cause of death and illness throughout the world. It is the 4th
leading cause of death in the U.S. and the world. There is no cure
for COPD. The damage to your airways and lungs cannot be reversed, but
there are things you can do to feel better and slow the damage to your
lungs. COPD is not contagious-you cannot catch it from someone else.
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Smoking is the most common cause of COPD.
Most cases of COPD develop after repeatedly breathing in fumes and other things
that irritate and damage the lung and airways. Cigarette smoking is the most
common irritant that causes COPD. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoking
can also cause COPD, especially if the smoke is inhaled. Breathing in other
fumes and dusts over a long period of time may also cause COPD. The lungs and
airways are highly sensitive to these irritants. They cause the airways to
become inflamed, narrowed, and destroy the elastic fibers that allow the lung
to stretch, then come back to its resting shape. This makes breathing air in
and out of the lungs more difficult.
Other things that may irritate the lungs and contribute to COPD include:
- Working around certain kinds of chemicals and breathing in the fumes
for many years
- Working in a dusty area over many years
- Heavy exposure to air pollution.
Being around secondhand smoke (smoke in the air from other people smoking cigarettes)
also plays a role in causing COPD.
Genes, tiny bits of information in your body cells passed on by your parents,
may play a role in developing COPD. In rare cases, COPD is caused by a gene-related
disorder called alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency. Alpha 1 antitrypsin is a protein
in your blood that inactivates destructive proteins in the blood. People with
antitrypsin deficiency have low levels of alpha 1 antitrypsin; the imbalance
of proteins leads to the destruction of the lung and COPD. If people with this
condition smoke, the disease progresses more rapidly.
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Most people with COPD are smokers or were smokers in the past. People with
a family history of COPD are more likely to get the disease if they smoke.
The chance of developing COPD is also greater in people who have spent many
years in contact with lung irritants such as:
- Air pollution
- Chemical fumes, vapors, and dusts usually linked to certain jobs
A person who has had frequent and severe lung infections, especially during
childhood, may have a greater chance of developing lung damage that can lead
to COPD. Fortunately, this is much less common today with antibiotic treatments.
Most people with COPD are at least 40 years old or around middle age when symptoms
start. It is unusual, but possible, for people less than 40 years old to have
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The symptoms of COPD include:
- Sputum (mucus) production
- Shortness of breath, especially with exercise
- Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
- Chest tightness.
A cough that doesn't go away and coughing up lots of mucus are common symptoms
of COPD. These often occur years before the flow of air in and out of the lungs
is reduced. However, not everyone with a cough and sputum production goes on
to develop COPD, and not everyone with COPD has a cough.
The severity of the symptoms depends on how much of the lung has been destroyed.
If you continue to smoke, the lung destruction is faster than if you stop smoking.
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Quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to reduce
your risk of developing COPD and slow the progress of the disease.
Your doctor will recommend treatments that help relieve your symptoms and help
you breathe easier. However, COPD cannot be cured.
The goals of COPD treatment are to:
- Relieve your symptoms with no or minimal side effects of treatment
- Slow the progress of the disease
- Improve exercise tolerance (your ability to stay active)
- Prevent and treat complications and sudden onset of problems
- Improve your overall health.
The treatment for COPD is different for each person. Your family doctor may
recommend that you see a lung specialist called a pulmonologist.
Treatment is based on whether your symptoms are mild, moderate, or severe.
Medications and pulmonary rehabilitation are often used to help relieve your
symptoms and to help you breathe more easily and stay active.
Your doctor may recommend medications called bronchodilators that work by relaxing
the muscles around your airways. They help open your airways quickly and make
breathing easier. Bronchodilators can be either short-acting or long-acting.
- Short-acting bronchodilators last about 4 to 6 hours and are used only
- Long-acting bronchodilators last about 12 hours or more and are used
Most bronchodilator medications are inhaled, so they go directly into your
lungs where they are needed. There are many kinds of inhalers, and it is important
to know how to use your inhaler correctly.
If you have mild COPD
, your doctor may recommend that you use a short-acting
bronchodilator. You then will use the inhaler only when needed.
If you have moderate or severe COPD
, your doctor may recommend regular
treatment with one or more inhaled bronchodilators. You may be told to use
one long-acting bronchodilator. Some people may need to use a long-acting bronchodilator
and a short-acting bronchodilator. This is called combination therapy.
Inhaled Glucocorticosteroids (Steroids)
Inhaled steroids are used for some people with moderate or severe COPD. Inhaled
steroids work to reduce airway inflammation. Your doctor may recommend that
you try inhaled steroids for 6 weeks to 3 months to see if the medication is
helping with your breathing problems.
The flu (influenza) can cause serious problems in people with COPD. Flu shots
can reduce the chance of getting the flu. You should get a flu shot every year.
This vaccine should be administered to those with COPD to prevent a common
cause of pneumonia. Revaccination may be necessary after 5 years in those over
65 years old.
Pulmonary Rehabilitation (Pulmonary Rehab)
Pulmonary rehab is a coordinated program of exercise, disease management training,
and counseling that can help you stay more active and carry out your day-to-day
activities. What is included in your pulmonary rehab program will depend on
what you and your doctor think you need. It may include exercise training,
nutrition advice, education about your disease and how to manage it, and counseling.
The different parts of the rehab program are managed by different types of
health care professionals (doctors, nurses, physical therapists, respiratory
therapists, exercise specialists, and dietitians) who work together to develop
a program just for you.
Pulmonary rehab programs can include:
Medical evaluation and management
. To decide what you need in your pulmonary
rehab program, a medical evaluation will be done. This may include getting
information on your health history, what medications you are on, doing a physical
examination, and learning about your symptoms. A spirometry measurement before
and after you take a bronchodilator medication may also be done.
. You will work with your pulmonary rehab team to set goals
for your program. These goals will look at the types of activities that you
want to do. For example, you may want to take walks every day, do chores around
the house, and visit with friends. These things will be worked on in your pulmonary
. Your program may include exercise training. This
training includes showing you exercises to help your arms and legs get stronger.
You may also learn breathing exercises that strengthen the muscles needed for
. Many pulmonary rehab programs have an educational component
during which you learn about your disease and symptoms, commonly used treatments,
different techniques to manage your symptoms, and what you should expect from
the program. The education may include meeting with a dietitian to learn about
your diet and healthy eating, with an occupational therapist to learn ways
to carry out your everyday activities that are easier on your breathing, or
with a respiratory therapist to learn about breathing techniques and how to
do respiratory treatments.
Program results (outcomes)
. You will talk with your pulmonary rehab
team at different times during your program to go over the goals that you set
and see if you are meeting them. For example, if your goal is to walk every
day for 30 minutes, you will talk to members of your pulmonary team and tell
them how often you are walking and for how long. The team is interested in
helping you do what you want to do.
If you have severe COPD
and low levels of oxygen in your blood, your
doctor may recommend oxygen therapy to help with your shortness of breath.
This means you are not getting enough oxygen on your own. You may need extra
oxygen all the time or some of the time. For some people with severe COPD,
using extra oxygen for more than 15 hours a day can help them:
- Do tasks or activities with less shortness of breath
- Protect the heart and other organs from damage
- Sleep more during the night and improve alertness during the day
- Live longer.
For some people with severe COPD
, surgery may be recommended. Surgery
is usually done for patients who have:
- Severe symptoms
- Not gotten improvement from medications
- A very hard time breathing most of the time.
The two types of surgeries considered in the treatment of severe COPD are:
Preventing COPD from Progressing
- A bullectomy may be done for some people with COPD who have severe
symptoms and giant bullae. A bulla is a large air sac. A giant bulla may
compress the good lung. A bullectomy is surgery that removes the bulla.
A bullectomy may make it easier for more oxygen to get into the blood because
the good lung expands. However, this surgery is indicated in only a few
- A lung transplant may be done for some patients with very severe
COPD. A transplant involves removing the lung of a person with COPD and
replacing it with a healthy lung from a donor.
If you smoke, the most important thing you can do to stop more damage to your
lungs is to quit smoking. Many hospitals have smoking cessation programs or
can refer you to one.
It is also important to stay away from people who smoke and places where you
know there will be smokers.
Staying away from other lung irritants such as pollution, dust, and certain
cooking or heating fumes is also important. For example, you should stay in
your house when the outside air quality is poor.
Managing Complications and Preventing Sudden Onset of Problems
People with COPD often have symptoms that suddenly get worse. When this happens,
you have a much harder time catching your breath. You may also have chest tightness,
more coughing, change in your sputum, and a fever. It is important to call
your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
Your doctor will look at things that might be causing these symptoms suddenly
to worsen. Sometimes the symptoms are caused by a lung infection. Your doctor
may want you to take an antibiotic medication that helps fight off the infection.
Your doctor may also recommend additional medications to help with your breathing.
These medications include bronchodilators and glucocorticosteroids.
Your doctor may recommend that you spend time in the hospital if:
- You have a lot of difficulty catching your breath
- You have a hard time talking
- Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray
- You are not mentally alert
- Your heartbeat is very fast
- Home treatment of worsening symptoms doesn't help.
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Although there is no cure for COPD, your symptoms can be managed and damage
to your lungs can be slowed. If you smoke, quitting is the most important thing
you can do to help your lungs. You also need to try and stay away from people
who smoke or places where there is smoking.
It is important to keep the air in your home clean. Here are some things that
may help you in your home:
- Keep smoke, fumes, and strong smells out of your home
- If your home is painted or sprayed for insects, have it done when you
can stay away from your home.
- Cook near an open door or window
- If you heat with wood or kerosene, keep a door or window open
- Keep your windows closed and stay at home when there is a lot of pollution
or dust outside.
If you are taking medications, take them as ordered and make sure you refill
them so you do not run out.
See your doctor at least two times a year, even if you are feeling fine. Make
sure you bring a list of medications you are taking to your doctor visit.
Ask your doctor or nurse about getting a flu shot and pneumonia vaccination.
Keep your body strong by learning breathing exercises and walking and exercising
Eat healthy foods. Ask your family to help you buy and fix healthy foods. Eat
lots of fruits and vegetables. Eat protein food like meat, fish, eggs, milk,
If your doctor has told you that you have severe COPD, there are some things
that you can do to get the most out of each breath. Make your life as easy as
possible at home by:
- Asking your friends and family for help.
- Doing things slowly.
- Doing things sitting down.
- Putting things you need in one place that is easy to reach.
- Finding very simple ways to cook, clean, and do other chores. Some people
use a small table or cart with wheels to move things around. Using a pole
or tongs with long handles can help you reach things.
- Keeping your clothes loose.
- Wearing clothes and shoes that are easy to put on and take off.
- Asking for help moving your things around in your house so that you will
not need to climb stairs as often.
- Picking a place to sit that you can enjoy and visit with others.
If you are finding that it is becoming more difficult to catch your breath,
your coughing has gotten worse, you are coughing up more mucus, or you have
signs of infection (such as a fever and feeling poorly), you need to call
your doctor right away
. Your doctor may do a spirometry test, blood work,
and a chest x-ray. Your doctor may also:
- Order antibiotics, which are medications that help fight off infection
- Change the type and dosage of the bronchodilator and glucocorticosteroid
medications you have been taking
- Order oxygen or increase the amount of oxygen you are currently using.
It is helpful to have certain information on hand in case you need to go to
the hospital or doctor right away. You should plan now to make sure you have:
Get emergency help if:
- The phone numbers for the doctor, hospital, and people who can
take you to the hospital or doctor
- Directions to the hospital and doctor's office
- A list of the medications you are taking.
- You find that is hard to talk or walk
- Your heart is beating very fast or irregularly
- Your lips or fingernails are gray or blue
- Your breathing is fast and hard, even when you are using your medications.
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