Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a type of respiratory illness distinguished by obstructed airways. COPD is in the same group of respiratory illnesses as asthma and bronchiectasis. It’s one of the most common pulmonary diseases and manifests itself in two conditions: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. People with COPD experience breathing difficulties which progressively get worse over time. Although the primary cause of COPD is smoking, the disease can also be caused by long-term exposure to toxic fumes and asbestos fibers.
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COPD: Characteristics and Symptoms
COPD usually manifests itself in forms which restrict airflow in the lungs and bronchial tubes:
- Chronic bronchitis, which is characterized by a long-term cough with sputum (mucus discharge)
- Emphysema, which is characterized by a progressive and irreversible breakdown of lung tissue
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), most patients with COPD suffer from a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
In most cases, the first indication that someone has COPD is a persistent, permanent cough. The cough is often accompanied by sputum, a liquid substance discharged from the respiratory system. Sputum consists mainly of mucus, but it also includes pus, bacteria, cell fragments, and in severe cases, blood. Another common symptom of COPD is shortness of breath.
Other symptoms of COPD include:
- Difficulty with inhaling/exhaling
- Respiratory infections
- Unexplained weight loss
- Tightness in the chest
- Apnea (shortness of breath)
Since COPD is a progressive disease, many people are not aware that they are sick.
How COPD is Diagnosed: Exams and Tests
Although COPD is an insidious disease which develops at a slow pace, it can be detected through various exams and tests.
Spirometry is the principal diagnostic method used by doctors to determine COPD. It is the most common pulmonary function test and involves the use of a spirometer to measure the volume and flow of air that can be breathed in and out. The process is simple: a patient blows a breath of air as hard as possible into the spirometer, which tests lung capacity. The results are instantaneous. These types of tests do not involve physical exertions, chemical tests, or drawing of blood or tissue samples.
A physician may also use a stethoscope to listen to the lungs. However, COPD often does not manifest itself with audible signs even when present in the respiratory system.
Visual methods of detection, such as X-rays and computerized tomography (CT) scans are more effective than the use of stethoscopes. In most instances, X-rays and CT scans may detect damage to lung tissue. However, imagery doesn’t help identify other symptoms and signs of COPD. Therefore, other tests and exams usually accompany X-rays and CT scans.
Doctors may also order arterial blood tests to measure oxygen levels in the patient’s circulatory system.
Risk Factors of COPD
As noted earlier, the main cause of COPD is smoking. However, there are other risk factors that can trigger the condition. These risk factors are:
- Exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution and second-hand smoke from cigarettes and other tobacco products
- Exposure to toxic gases, fumes, and airborne asbestos particles
- Frequent use of cooking fire in a poorly ventilated space
Asbestos and COPD
Long-term exposure to asbestos fibers and/or dust is one of the secondary causes of COPD, particularly in workers involved in shipbuilding, construction, and energy-generating industries. Veterans who served in the armed forces throughout much of the 20th Century are also at risk of developing COPD and other serious life-threatening illnesses caused by asbestos exposure.
Since asbestos-derived products were used extensively in the United States across a broad range of products until the 1980s, millions of Americans were exposed to asbestos fibers. If someone constantly inhales or swallows asbestos, the resulting buildup of its fibers may lead to blocked airways and extensive damage to lung tissue that triggers emphysema or chronic bronchitis.
COPD Treatment Options
Presently, there is no cure for COPD. However, COPD can be managed through various medicines and therapies. These treatments not only slow down the progress of COPD’s destructive effects on the respiratory system, they also alleviate the disease’s symptoms and help improve the patient’s quality of life.
According to the ALA, there isn’t a best method to treat COPD. Each patient’s condition is unique, and the attending physician will work closely with the patient to set up an individualized plan based on specific symptoms and needs.
Doctors have several options regarding which medicines to prescribe to patients with COPD. These options include:
- Bronchodilators, which are medications distributed by inhalers. These medications relax the muscles around the breathing tubes and allow a patient to breathe easier. They come in either short-acting or long-acting types and include such drugs as ipratropium, salmeterol, formoterol, or albuterol.
- Anti-inflammatory medications, such as montelukast and roflumilast, which reduce swelling and the production of mucus in the breathing tubes.
- Steroids delivered by inhalers are sometimes prescribed to reduce inflammation in the lung tissue.
- Combined therapy which mixes two or more of the above medications.
In extreme cases of COPD, or if a patient is suffering from a flare-up, a doctor may order other types of treatment, including:
- Oxygen therapy
- Delivery of bronchodilators through a nebulizer
- Machine-assisted respiratory therapy
- Steroids delivered in pill form or intravenously
Another form of treating COPD is the implementation of a medically-approved exercise plan and physical therapy. While physical exercise does not reverse the effects of the condition, it can help patients learn to breathe differently and maintain the strength of leg muscles. Patients with COPD should make an exercise plan with their doctor or a physical therapist to determine how far to walk, the proper breathing methods to use while exercising, and avoiding habits such as speaking while walking.
COPD patients who smoke tobacco products must cease smoking. Per the ALA and NIH, smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Quitting right away will slow down the destructive effects of COPD on lung tissue.
Legal Help for COPD
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