COPD: What it is and How to Get Treatment Instructions

by Nancy

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is a lung condition that causes a wide range of uncomfortable and difficult to manage symptoms. As with any chronic illness, treatment and management are sometimes complicated and ongoing and depend upon various factors. Still, for roughly 16 million Americans who suffer from COPD, the topic of treatment and management is of great importance.

If you have COPD and need to know more about the disorder, and more importantly what you can expect while living with it, this guide helps you to begin to plan your management strategy. COPD is not something that goes away with time. Once you have it, you have it. The next step is to educate yourself on the ways in which you must make lifestyle changes. Luckily, there is much you can still do.


What Is COPD?

Once commonly referred to as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, COPD is a disease characterized by poor airflow through the lungs and long-term breathing issues. As a progressive disease, COPD gets worse over time. In some cases, even the most basic of physical activities becomes a struggle for sufferers.

What Causes COPD?

To understand what causes COPD, understand how the lungs function. Your lungs are responsible for providing fresh oxygen to your cells and tissue and disposing of carbon dioxide and other gasses. When the lungs expand, it creates a vacuum that is quickly filled by the surrounding air. This travels down tube-like structures called bronchioles and into small air sacs called alveoli. Once in the alveoli, oxygen molecules diffuse into small capillaries and enter the bloodstream, where they are then carried to all parts of the body via the circulatory system.

When a person suffers from COPD, the bronchial tubes become inflamed, significantly reducing airflow into the lungs. In more advanced cases, the delicate alveoli are destroyed through exposure to harmful cigarette smoke or other pollutants, greatly restricting the body’s ability to intake oxygen and release waste gases.

Why Do People Develop COPD?

As with any disease or illness, certain behaviors or risk factors either directly cause or contribute to the onset of an illness. Below is a list of the most common causes of COPD.

  • Exposure to Cigarette Smoke: According to the CDC, 38% of the roughly 16 million Americans diagnosed with COPD are smokers. The CDC also states that people do not necessarily have to be smokers to develop COPD, as chronic exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, especially among children, is enough to cause the disease.
  • Asthma: People with asthma, another chronic inflammatory disease affecting the lungs, are at significantly higher risk of developing COPD than those without. This is especially true if the person in question is a smoker who has been exposed to pollutants or other airborne toxins.
  • Exposure to Dust, Chemicals, Or Other Pollutants: Long-term exposure to dust, chemicals, or other pollutants can also cause COPD. Some common examples of this include workplace contact with asbestos or the burning of crude cooking fuels in developing countries.
  • Alpha-1-antitrypsin Deficiency: Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, also known as AAT deficiency, is a genetic disorder that significantly raises a person’s chances of developing lung or liver disease. AAT is a protein made in the liver and helps protect and repair the lungs from external damage. Sufferers of this disease carry a gene that causes the AAT protein to be made in an odd shape that stops it from traveling to the lungs, and causes it to build up in the liver tissue.

Symptoms Of COPD

Chronic Coughing: Developing a chronic cough is often the first noticeable symptom of COPD and is often dismissed as a long-lasting cold or smoker cough. In the early stages, the coughing may appear for two to three months, followed by a period without any coughing. Doctors generally recommend people see a doctor if they experience chronic coughing for more than three months in a row. At advanced stages, excessive coughing has led to broken ribs and even brief loss of consciousness.

Shortness of Breath: Because COPD limits the amount of oxygen that can enter the bloodstream, sufferers of COPD feel as if they are constantly short of breath.

Difficulty in Performing Physical Activities: All physical activities, even ones of mild exertion, require a constant supply of oxygen to the cells to produce energy. Without this supply, people feel weak and tired.

High Production of Sputum: Sputum is a type of mucus coughed up from the airways when a person’s lungs are damaged.

How Is COPD Diagnosed?

As with any disease, diagnosis requires a doctor to review the signs and symptoms and run the appropriate tests. When it comes to COPD, there are three commonly used tests to identify the illness.

  • Pulmonary Function Tests: These tests seek to measure the amount of air a person can inhale and exhale and how much oxygen the lungs deliver to the blood.
  • CT Scan: CT scans use x-ray measurements to construct an image of the lung, which doctors use to screen for issues such as lung cancer or emphysema.
  • Chest X-Ray: A chest X-ray is another diagnostic tool doctors use to help rule out other causes, such as heart disease or lung cancer.

How to Treat COPD

Quit Smoking: Most people have only a mild form of COPD that is effectively cured by quitting smoking or reducing exposure to harmful chemicals or pollution. Of course, this is often easier said than done, and some people may need treatment to aid them in quitting smoking, such as nicotine gum or packages.

Bronchodilators: Bronchodilators are a class of medication that relaxes the muscles around the airways, causing them to expand and allow a greater inflow of air. Most Bronchodilators come as inhalers and are used on-demand to relieve coughing and shortness of breath.

Inhaled Corticosteroid Medications: If bronchodilators do not provide sufficient relief, doctors often turn to Inhaled Corticosteroid Medications. Medications belonging to this class of compounds help prevent and reduce airway inflammation, although they come with more side effects than bronchodilators.

Oral Steroids: Oral steroids may be used to treat particularly severe bouts of COPD for a period of up to five days. Although not a long-term solution, it provides short-term relief.

Phosphodiesterase-4 Inhibitors: Only one drug has been approved to treat severe COPD, and it is called Roflumilast. Like the other forms of treatment, Roflumilast relaxes the airways and results in greater airflow. Unfortunately, the drug is known to cause some harsh side effects, such as diarrhea and weight gain.

Oxygen Therapy: Some people’s lungs may be too damaged to deliver sufficient oxygen to the bloodstream even while under treatment. In these cases, the only remaining option is to use some device to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream.