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Everything You Need to Know about Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Overview

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a condition affecting the oxygen exchange in the lungs by narrowing of the air passages within the lungs, making it difficult for oxygen and carbon dioxide to be exchanged.

 What is COPD?

As the name suggests, COPD is a chronic inflammatory condition. It develops slowly. It is usually seen in people having long-term exposure to some harmful gases or irritable substances. A classic example is cigarette smoking. COPD includes emphysema (damaged air sacs) and chronic bronchitis (long-lasting inflammation of the air passages).

What are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?

COPD is a chronic condition. You will not develop symptoms immediately. It might begin with symptoms like shortness of breath during any physical or strenuous activities; and mild coughing, which may eventually worsen to a stage where you start avoiding physical activities and require medical oxygen support. The symptoms include:

  • Breathlessness or shortness of breath
  • Chronic, productive coughing(coughing producing sputum)
  • Tightness in chest
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent attacks of cold, flu, and respiratory infections in the past
  • Edema (swelling) in the lower extremities

When to See a Doctor?

Symptoms are often serious and need immediate medical intervention. You need emergency treatment if:

  • If you develop bluish nails and lips, this is an indicator of severely low oxygen levels.
  • If you are facing difficulty in breathing
  • If you feel your heart is pounding.

All these signs are indicative that you have a severe deficit of oxygen.

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What are the Causes of COPD?

  • COPD is caused due to prolonged exposure to irritable substances that harm the bronchial lining, such as from smoking.
  • In ill-ventilated rooms, when people cook food, the gases and fumes released from burnt fuel are not easily channeled out and stay in the same place.
  • Repeated exposure to pollutants, smoke, and fumes for prolonged periods leads to inflammation and hence, COPD.

What are the Risk Factors That May Increase the Chances of COPD?

  • Smoking. Smoking is one of the most common causes of COPD in developed countries. Data suggests that three out of every ten chronic smokers develop COPD later in their life. The probability increases with every tobacco product you smoke
  • Exposure to Fumes at the Workplace. If you work at a factory where you are exposed to harmful chemicals and fumes, you are at an increased risk of developing COPD.
  • Asthma and Smoking. If you have asthma or a family history of asthma and smoke, there is an increased risk of getting affected by COPD.
  • Pollution. These pollutants include harmful gases and irritants that affect our lungs and increase our chances of suffering from COPD.

How is COPD Diagnosed?

Your doctor might run a series of tests to confirm his diagnosis:

  • Medical History. Make sure to tell your doctor if you smoke frequently or smoked in the past, your job profile, and if you have exposure to pollutants and irritants daily. Also, let him know if anyone in your family had COPD.
  • Auscultation. It is the process where your doctor uses his stethoscope to check lung condition. He would place the diaphragm of his stethoscope on your chest area and ask you to breathe.
  • Spirometry. It is a test to check your lung functions. Your doctor will ask you to take a deep breath and blow into a tube. This helps your doctor assess your lung functions.
  • Imaging Studies. Imaging studies include X-ray and CT scans. These are done to confirm the diagnosis. It gives your doctor clarity on the condition of your lungs.
  • Saturation. Saturation means SpO2; it is also used to diagnose COVID-19 cases. It is a numerical value that tells about the amount of oxygen present in your blood. A reduced SpO2 level below 92 is a thing to worry about.

How is COPD Treated?

There are various modes of treatment based on the severity of your COPD. Some cases heal just with medications, while some might require surgery.

  • Medications. Medications include bronchodilators, steroids, and some antibiotics. As the name suggests, bronchodilators dilate or widen the narrow bronchus, which is caused by COPD. Fluticasone is one of the most preferred drugs for the treatment of COPD. Steroids act by reducing inflammation. Prednisolone is one widely used steroid in cases of COPD. Antibiotics do not treat COPD but are used to prevent COPD complications as the patients with COPD are at an increased risk of developing pneumonia, influenza, etc.
  • Oxygen Therapy. Extreme cases of COPD where breathing becomes difficult for the patients need oxygen support. The patient is supplemented with a mask or nasal cannula that helps him breathe easily.
  • Surgery. When medications fail, and the patient does not have enough time to try an alternative drug, the doctor opts for surgery. Surgery done in COPD cases is bullectomy (removal of dilated air space in the lungs called a bulla). Lung transplantation is also an option.

What Lifestyle Changes Can Help Cure COPD?

  • Stop Smoking: If you are smoking even after being diagnosed with COPD. Then, it is high time you need to stop. Consult a medical professional for counseling on deaddiction, and stop smoking at the earliest.
  • Keep Your Air Passage Clean: In COPD, there is inflammation, which leads to mucus buildup in your air passage. This eventually blocks the airway, and you feel difficulty in breathing. To avoid such complications, keep your air passage clean. Your doctor might advise a humidifier/steam inhalation in this case.
  • Reduce Exposure to Smoke and Pollutants. Stay away from areas where you would have prolonged exposure to smoke and irritants.
  • Eat Healthily. COPD is a disorder of the respiratory system, yet indirectly, a person’s diet is connected to his health issues. Overweight people should get on a healthy diet to reduce weight. This can help them breathe easily.
  • Take Preventive Measures Against Respiratory Infections.  Avoid large gatherings, use a face-covering mask, wash your hands or use a sanitiser, get vaccinated against influenza, pneumonia, etc. to ward off your risk of developing acute respiratory infections.
  • Exercise. As advised by your doctor, light physical exercise and breathing exercises can help improve the general condition.

Conclusion

In Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, in addition to the lifestyle changes, it is important to take your medicines as advised by your doctors and you should know the contact details of your pulmonologist and medical specialist. Be prepared for seeking emergency/ in-hospital care if your symptoms get aggravated.

Frequently Added Questions (FAQs)

I Have Had Pain in My Lungs For a Couple of Days. Is it COPD?

Pain is not something directly associated with COPD. However, COPD patients have been found to develop pain in the lungs due to strain in the chest muscles by coughing very hard.

Is Chest X-ray a Confirmatory Diagnosis for COPD?

Not X-ray, but spirometry is the confirmatory diagnosis for the patients of COPD. Some patients get diagnosed with COPD, even after having a routine chest X-ray.

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Verified By Dr Srikar Darisetty
MBBS, MD(Pulmonary medicine), DM (Pulmonary, Critical care and Sleep Medicine), DNB, EDRM(Switzerland), Consultant in Apollo Health City Jubilee Hills.

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