Understanding COPD

October 25, 2010

Doctor examining an x-ray

Over 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, and many others are likely to have it without knowing it. COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition that gets worse over time. It is made up of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term cough with a great deal of mucus. It makes it hard to breathe. Emphysema is damage to the air sacs in the lungs. This condition keeps the lungs from doing their job of bringing oxygen to the body and getting rid of waste gases.

Smoking is by far the most common cause of COPD. Other causes are dust, pollution, and chemicals.

Symptoms of COPD grow slowly over years. You may have frequent or long-lasting coughs that make mucus. You may suffer from shortness of breath that gets worse with mild activity. You may also notice wheezing or chest tightness when you breathe. If you have these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor.

How is COPD diagnosed?

Your doctor will first ask about your symptoms, your medical and family history, and if you have been around a lot of smoke, dust, and chemicals. He or she will then do an exam and listen to your chest for wheezing and other sounds.

You may also have a simple and painless test called spirometry. When you breathe into a tube, it measures how much air you can breathe out and how fast the air moves. Other tests you could have are chest x-rays, a CT scan, and a measure of the level of gases, such as oxygen, in your blood.

How is it treated?

It is important to note that, while COPD can't be cured, you can do many things to treat symptoms, help keep it from getting worse, and improve your quality of life so you can keep doing more of the activities you enjoy.

First, quit smoking! The most important thing you can do to manage COPD is to stop smoking. It doesn't matter how long you've smoked or how old you are. It is never too late to stop.

A number of medicines can help. Bronchodilators are usually taken by inhaler and make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in your airways. Inhaled steroids help reduce inflammation during COPD "flare ups." At times of more significant flares, your doctor may prescribe prednisone by mouth or give you a cortisone shot.

As COPD progresses, the oxygen level in your blood may drop. Oxygen therapy may be needed to make sure you have enough in your blood to keep your muscles and tissues working their best.

Surgery may be used for severe cases of COPD that have not responded to other treatments.

How to make COPD better and keep from getting worse:

  • If you smoke, quit right away. If you don't smoke, don't start.
  • Follow the treatments that your doctor prescribes.
  • Get your flu and pneumonia shots. These illnesses are very dangerous to people with COPD.
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