Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow in the lungs and causes symptoms like wheezing and difficulty breathing. COPD isn’t one condition. Instead, it is an umbrella term used to describe various conditions that affect the lungs. Two of the most common conditions that COPD patients have are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis occurs when there is inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes. The bronchial tubes carry air to and from the alveoli (small air sacs in the lungs). Those with chronic bronchitis frequently experience mucus and coughing.

Emphysema occurs when the alveoli in the lungs are destroyed. This can happen due to several reasons, such as exposure to cigarette smoke or damage from other irritating particulate matter.

There is yet to be a cure for COPD, but proper treatment has a good track record of helping patients control their symptoms and reduce the risk of exacerbations. Because COPD is a progressive disease and tends to worsen over time, it is important to start treatment and make positive lifestyle changes as soon as possible.

Symptoms of COPD

Common symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease include:

  • • Swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs
  • • Fatigue
  • • Unintended weight loss
  • • Respiratory infection
  • • Chronic mucus-filled cough
  • • Tightness in the chest area
  • • Wheezing
  • • Shortness of breath

These symptoms may not appear right away as they tend to only occur when there is significant damage to the lungs. If you are continually exposed to smoke or airborne irritants, exacerbations are likely to occur. Exacerbations refer to episodes of intensified symptoms and usually last up to several days.

Common Causes of COPD

The most common cause of COPD is a long-term smoking habit—especially cigarette smoke. Cigar, pipe, or second-hand smoke can be detrimental to the lungs as well. In addition to airborne pollutants, an alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is known to cause COPD. Alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) is a protein made in the liver and secreted into the bloodstream to protect your lungs. When there is not enough of this protein, liver disease or lung disease may occur.

Risk Factors for COPD

The most significant risk factor is exposure to tobacco smoke, but what else can increase your risk of COPD? Below are some common risk factors:

- Asthma. People with asthma are more likely to develop COPD than those without this condition. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory airway disease. If you smoke and have asthma, your risk of COPD becomes significantly higher.

Genetics. Alpha-1-antitrypsin is an important protein for maintaining the health of the lungs, and an AAT deficiency can greatly increase your risk of COPD. AAT deficiencies are a genetic disorder, so part of your COPD risk comes down to your genetics.

- Occupational exposure to fumes. If your job frequently exposes you to dusts, chemicals, or fumes and other harmful vapors, you may likely develop COPD. Sometimes, workplaces can have poor ventilation. Spending long periods in poorly ventilated areas while exposed to irritants in the air can greatly increase your risk.

Potential COPD Health Complications

COPD can make you more susceptible to respiratory infections like the flu, pneumonia, or the common cold. If you have COPD and catch a respiratory infection, your breathing difficulties may be worsened, and further tissue damage may take place in the lungs. Some other possible complications that COPD may cause include:

- Depression. COPD can hold you back from doing many of the activities that you once loved, and a mental health disorder like depression can develop as a result. The right treatment plan can help you breathe easier so that you may ease back into any sports or hobbies you’ve been sidelined from due to your lung condition. With the right help, COPD and depression can be treated.

- High blood pressure. COPD patients have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure in the lung arteries. This can result in pulmonary hypertension.

- Lung cancer. It is not known why, exactly, COPD increases the risk of lung cancer, but researchers think that the two diseases are closely linked. COPD increases the chance of lung cancer, which makes COPD prevention all the more important.

- Heart problems. Like with lung cancer, it isn’t fully understood why COPD makes heart problems more likely. However, COPD is known to increase your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

Preventing COPD

Because the clearest cause of COPD is cigarette smoking, the first step to preventing COPD is always to quit smoking if you smoke. Doing so can slow the progression of the disease, and you will see improvements in lung function soon after you quit smoking.

Getting your annual flu vaccination, along with regular vaccinations against pneumococcal pneumonia, can reduce your risk of respiratory infections and their subsequent complications.

Finally, speak to workplace safety staff about ventilation problems or other concerns you may have about your work environment. By avoiding air pollution and hazardous vapors, you are doing your lungs a world of good. If you must work in areas where you are exposed to fumes regularly, make sure you have proper protective equipment to protect your lungs from irritants.