Have you ever heard anything of COPD? Probably not, but maybe the terms asthma and bronchitis do ring a bell. But what happens when these diseases become chronic and non-reversible? Read more to find out!
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (aka COPD) is an umbrella term which is used to characterise different progressive lung diseases like emphysema, chronic bronchitis and refractory asthma. This disease is defined as an increasing breathlessness, making breathing challenging as your lung function is at its minimal. Currently, COPD is an incurable disease but with the right treatment and therapies, patients could better manage their symptoms. Thus expanding their lifespan.
More than 3 million people in the US have been diagnosed with Emphysema, which is caused when the walls between the lungs air sacs become damaged. This makes the sacs larger and therefore they can’t absorb as much oxygen as they normally would. Lungs can’t change gases effectively and the air gets trapped in the lungs. Hence the feeling of shortness of breath.
- Chronic Bronchitis
Caused by damage to the bronchial tubes, Bronchitis is a condition which everyone has every now and then. But having a Chronic Bronchitis is a totally different issue. As the bronchial tubes get irritated and swollen, breathing gets more difficult and one coughs all the time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if mucus comes out with your cough and it lasts about 3 months for 2 years, then you already have Chronic Bronchitis. The majority of people who have this condition usually end up developing Emphysema too.
- Refractory Asthma
This condition is very similar to having asthma, only that the medications can’t really control it. When you get an asthma attack the bronchial airways get swollen and you can’t breathe. Usually, you would take your medication and that would be it, but not in this case. That is the reason Refractory Asthma is a very serious disease.
Signs and Symptoms
There are many diseases with very clear symptoms. COPD is not one of them. As we keep on ageing we tend to believe that coughing and shortness of breathing are normal. But even these could be some signs of early stages from COPD. It is of utmost importance to speak to your doctor at the first sign of COPD. Making the necessary lifestyle changes early, accompanied by a treatment plan from your doctor, might prolong your life.
Here are some of the most common symptoms to watch out for:
- Shortness of breath
- Chronic cough (with and without mucus)
- Repeat respiratory infections
- Tightness in the chest
Of course when the disease progresses, so do the symptoms. You will get tired a lot faster and you will run out of breath just by walking up the stairs.
So what really does cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)? As many people would accurately guess, it is smoking. Smoking is the primary cause of this condition, with Tobacco being the first cause of lung damage. When the smoke enters our lungs, it causes irritation and our body produces white blood cells to defend the organism, and these release strong enzymes which destroy lung tissue, causing COPD. Even smoking marijuana can contribute to the degradation of lung tissue. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that non-smokers will not get this disease. On the contrary, they can and they do.
This is caused by many different factors like long-term, cumulative exposure to other types of airway irritants and genetic disposition.
For example, being exposed to higher levels of:
- Indoor air pollution: using biomass fuels for cooking, or using toxic cleaning products, dust etc.
- Outdoor air pollution: nitrogen oxides (pollutants from burning fossil fuels) and carbon monoxide
As mentioned before, genetics can also be a factor in this condition. For example, the deficiency of Alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) can result into low levels of AAT protein, which helps to protect your lungs. If you have this condition, it doesn’t matter if you don’t smoke or if you aren’t even exposed to fumes: your body will be too weak to protect your lungs as it’s not producing enough protein.
These are the risk factors for developing COPD, along with age, socioeconomic status (poor nutrition) and infections (HIV or tuberculosis).
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in an irreversible lung disease which researches haven’t yet found a way to cure. However, there are a variety of treatment options which can help patients to better manage their condition. These would include medication-based therapies, pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy and sometimes even surgery (worst case).
A form of inhaler which relaxes the muscles around the airway so they stay open and it gets easier to breathe.
- Corticosteroids or steroids
These steroids are anti-inflammatories which help with reducing the swelling and the production of mucus. Can be taken in the form of a pill or inhaler.
It’s very possible that the doctor will prescribe you an antibiotic to fight against infections which could develop with COPD.
- Oxygen Therapy
This is one of the oldest types of treatment and it was the first treatment which showed to prolong life with COPD. More than one million Medicare recipients utilise this therapy
In some cases, surgery may be necessary to help with managing this disease. Coming with its own risks, it may be the best course of action if the patient is in end-stage COPD and no other type of medication is working.
One of the first and most important steps you could take is to stop smoking! By quitting you can prevent COPD from getting worse. Of course, this option is not easy as many people have been smoking for years, but you can always get some help from example: https://smokefree.gov/
Living with COPD
So how do you keep on living with this condition? Even though this disease may be challenging at times, there is still the possibility to have a good quality of life.
For example if you need to rely on oxygen tanks to breathe, there are some small portable tanks which you could use on the go.
People also advice modifying your diet so it is more COPD-friendly:
- Eating more high-fiber foods to reduce your overall cholesterol levels
- Reducing your salt intake, so your body doesn’t retain as much water/fluids
- Avoid gassy foods, which could make your breathing harder
- Stay hydrated, to keep the mucus thin
Managing supplemental oxygen can be stressful, so try out this guide for oxygen therapy to get more insight and help!
Mark is a Business student and currently a member of our Intern team! Mark has three different nationalities, he lived in a lot of places (New York, Bonn, Mexico City, to name a few) and he’s now in Amsterdam to help other students excel at their studies!