Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a long-term condition that progresses slowly. It affects your lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. This ends up causing problems carrying out our daily tasks. This threatens our quality of life.
Frequently, the term COPD is used to describe chronic bronchitis and emphysema, two progressive pulmonary diseases that can occur separately or together. The most common form of COPD is a combination of the 2 conditions.
As the name indicates, it is chronic inflammation (ongoing) of the airways (bronchi) in the lungs. Chronic bronchitis is defined as a cough that produces phlegm that occurs daily for at least 3 months for two or more consecutive years.
Bronchitis makes the lungs produce excess mucous to keep the bronchi moist. This causes the cough and constriction of the airways, which makes it difficult for the air to flow freely. As a result, the individual is left without breath.
Emphysema occurs when the alveoli of the lungs get bigger and start to hurt. This makes the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream less efficient. The alveoli collapse, which means that they cannot prop up the microscopic airways called the bronchioles. This produces respiratory problems that make it extremely difficult to inhale and exhale.
What are the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
The signs of COPD tend to develop slowly over the course of many years. The main symptoms go from difficulty breathing, wheezing and tightness in the chest to productive cough (expectoration of mucous or phlegm) most days.
A doctor will determine if the COPD is mild, moderate or serious depending on the different factors. First, he will see if the patient is experiencing symptoms, how much effort it takes for the person to lose their breath, how much it limits this person’s daily life.
Then, he will see if the patient has frequent infections in the airways (cold or flu), if they have a chronic productive cough (ongoing); and how frequent they have outbreaks. It should be pointed out that, those with COPD generally have exacerbations (outbreaks), often caused by an infection in the respiratory tract, such as a cold.
In the grave stage of COPD, there can also be other symptoms and signs of serious pulmonary disease, like:
- A blue tint to the skin (cyanosis).
- Liquid retention, which may cause:
- Swelling in the feet, ankles and legs.
- Extreme fatigue
- Weight loss
What causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
The great majority of cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is caused by smoking. Second-hand exposure to tobacco, especially during infancy, can also increase your risk of developing COPD. In some cases, COPD can be the result of long-term exposure to dust or chemical smoke on the job. Air contamination also contributes to the development and aggravation of its symptoms.
In addition to smoking and exposure to dust and smoke putting you at risk, there are various other factors that can increase the probability of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These factors are:
- Family history of COPD (especially if they were a smoker).
- Family history of asthma (and if they have suffered for a long period of time).
- Problems with airways and lungs during childhood.
Tests and diagnosis
To get a diagnosis for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a doctor will evaluate the patient through certain tests that will let them know the person’s state of health. Even more so than the evident symptomatology and the information obtained through the patient’s interview.
Of course, the doctor must check if the patient is a smoker or if they have ever smoked, and if they work somewhere that has exposure to dust, gases or smoke.
The tests that allow them to explore the background of the patient’s state of health are:
- Pulmonary function tests. Spirometry is a pulmonary function test that has the patient breathe into a machine called a spirometer. The main readings used to diagnose COPD are the total amount of air exhaled and the amount exhaled in one second.
- A chest x-ray or a computerized tomography. These studies can show characteristics that suggest that one may have COPD. These image tests can help to highlight other conditions that could be causing the symptoms.
- Measuring the gas in the arterial blood. With these tests you can measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream to help evaluate how well the lungs are functioning.
- Anxiety and depression
- Cardiac insufficiency
- Type 2 diabetes
- Pulmonary hypertension (high arterial pressure and the lung’s blood vessels)
- Polycythemia (increase of red blood cells)
- Osteoporosis (a condition in which the bones become less dense and strong, which increases the risk of fractures)
When should you talk to your doctor?
When the person has been a smoker, is older than 35 years old and presents the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing and they are wheezing. At first, this is usually only noted during physical activity.
- Productive cough (expectoration with mucous) that affects the person a few times a day, most days.
- Suffers frequent infections of the airways (such as colds that cause a cough).
What can be done?
The most important thing that can be done for yourself if you have COPD is to quit smoking immediately. It will improve your cough, decrease your difficulty to breathe and will also reduce pulmonary damage.
COPD is a progressive disease and, unfortunately, there is no cure for it. It is also not possible to reverse the lung damage that has already been done. However, there are treatments available that help to improve lung function, relieve symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease.