Our lungs are unique and incredible organs. They are the part of the respiratory system responsible for taking in life-giving oxygen and expelling waste in the form of exhaled carbon dioxide gas. However, like so many complex and wonderful organ systems, our lungs can develop diseases and slowly lose their function. One very common form of lung disease is called COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Due to the high prevalence of COPD, you probably know someone who has lived with this health problem.
COPD is not just one specific disorder. The term COPD refers to a group of lung diseases that cause blocked airflow from the lungs.1 These airway-obstructive conditions are traditionally classified as either “emphysema” or “chronic bronchitis.” Emphysema refers to a disease in the air sacs of the lungs. This leads to floppy and damaged air sacs that hold onto bad air and do not allow the entry of fresh air. In some patients, this air-trapping phenomenon can even cause a barrel-chested appearance.4 Air trapping due to emphysema can also lead to decreased oxygen exchange from the lungs into the bloodstream. Chronic bronchitis is an associated syndrome of COPD that involves an ongoing cycle of inflammation in the tubes, or bronchi, of the lungs—leading to a constant mucousy cough. Most people with COPD have both aspects of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, however, one may be more apparent than the other.3
In either case, the airflow obstruction is persistent and worsening over time. Due to its irreversible and progressively worsening nature, COPD is the third leading cause of death worldwide, and the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.1,2 Despite this sobering statistic, people with COPD can go on to live many years after their diagnosis if their condition is detected early and treated appropriately.3
For a clinician to determine whether someone has COPD, they first look for common symptoms, which may include:
- Long-term cough
- Long-term excessive mucous
- Difficulty breathing with even light exercise
- Ongoing shortness of breath at rest or rapid breathing
- Weight loss4,5
Once a pattern of symptoms raises concern for the disease, several tests may be performed to identify COPD as the most likely cause. Tests can include: a chest x-ray, breathing tests like spirometry or pulmonary function test, blood test (to check gas exchange or signs of infection/inflammation in the blood), electrocardiogram or EKG (to determine if heart health is playing a role in these symptoms), or cultures (to check for infection).5
The most common risk factor for developing COPD is smoking. Quitting smoking is the cornerstone of both the prevention and treatment of this disease.
Although there is no cure for COPD, there are several interventions that have proven useful in maintaining functioning lungs in those affected.
- Avoiding further insults to the damaged airway: reduce exposure to air pollution and secondhand smoke, along with avoiding infections known to damage the lungs such as pneumonia and flu by getting appropriate vaccines
- Taking prescribed medications regularly: these may include pills or inhalers
- Attending a pulmonary rehabilitation program: physical exercises shown to support the muscles of breathing
Advanced forms of COPD may require oxygen therapy, lung surgery, or lung transplant. Once the lungs are not able to adequately perform their function, other body systems also show signs of struggle. Many COPD sufferers experience weight loss because of increased nutritional demands of this struggle occurring in the body, so working with a dietician can often provide benefit.5
COPD is a major cause of long-term disability and death. While there are some rare inherited forms, most cases of COPD are best avoided by limiting exposure to air pollution and smoking (including secondhand smoke). This means wearing appropriate respiratory protection if you work at a job with irritant inhalant risks. Be aware of chemical fumes or dust from the environment of your workplace and take steps to protect yourself from this cause of COPD by speaking with safety personnel. You and your loved ones will all breathe easier when you take care of your incredible lungs!