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All About COPD

Thursday 11 June 2020
6 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. Types of COPD

II. Symptoms of COPD

III. What causes COPD?

a. Complications of COPD

IV. Diagnosis

V. Treatment

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a leading cause of death in the United States. A staggering 16 million Americans have this lung disease. COPD involves several lung disorders that affect a person’s ability to breathe. Increasing breathlessness is the most common sign of COPD, but many may not notice this problem until their COPD is severe. [1] 

There is no cure for COPD, but the symptoms can be managed with medications like Ventolin. COPD can have an adverse effect on everyday life and make the most mundane activities near to impossible. COPD is preventable but is more likely to occur if you have other breathing disorders like asthma. Read on to learn more about symptoms and treatments for this common lung disorder. [1] 

Types of COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a progressive disease that causes the state of your lungs to deteriorate over time. COPD is the umbrella term that involves the more specific disorders of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Many people with COPD have a combination of both.

Chronic Bronchitis: Chronic bronchitis is characterized by coughing, mucus, and shortness of breath that lasts for at least three months and occurs up to 2 years in a row. Chronic bronchitis occurs when you lose the cilia on your bronchial tubes. Cilia line the bronchial tubes and help move mucus out. Once you lose that cilia, your body cannot get rid of mucus, which can lead to coughing and more mucus production. The mucus eventually blocks the airways and increases your risk of infection. Chronic infection can scar the lungs and reduce function.

a man using a breathing treatment

Emphysema: Emphysema involves damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. These damaged air sacs stretch out, and the lungs grow larger, making it harder for air to flow in and out of the lungs. As the air sacs continue to break down, it becomes more challenging to push air out and draw it in.  This condition most often affects people over the age of 45. [2] 

Symptoms of COPD

COPD is a dangerous condition because symptoms don’t typically occur until significant lung damage has occurred. COPD may flare-up and become worsened by specific activities. It is essential to become aware of which activities bring on your COPD symptoms. Some common symptoms of COPD may include: 

  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Chronic cough with mucus
  • Shortness of breath, especially during exercise [3]

COPD results in less oxygen in the body, making it difficult to get rid of gasses like carbon dioxide. Not being able to participate in physical activity and can significantly affect daily activities. The following side effects can occur because of COPD:

  • Difficulty dressing, bathing, and preparing meals
  • Sleeping problems
  • Losing the ability to clean
  • Increased recovery time after activities
  • Greater susceptibility to infections
  • Higher chance of developing other conditions like heart failure [4] 

What causes COPD?

Smoking is the reason behind the majority of COPD cases. The risk factors of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can be due to genetic factors, lifestyle habits, as well as environmental conditions. Risk factors can include:

Tobacco smoke: This is the most significant risk factor for COPD. Long-term cigarette smoking wreaks havoc on the lungs and leaves permanent damage. The longer you smoke, the higher the risk. You may also be at risk for COPD if you are exposed to secondhand smoke for long periods.

Occupational hazards: If you work in a profession that results in long-term exposure to chemical fumes, dust, and vapors, you are at risk for COPD. Workplace irritants can inflame the lungs and lead to COPD.

a campfire

Pre-existing conditions: If you have asthma, you are at a higher risk of developing COPD. Asthma is another airway disease that can steadily grow worse and result in COPD if you are continually exposed to harmful irritants.

Genetics: It is less common, but 1 percent of COPD patients are a result of Alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt) deficiency. This genetic disorder results in a lack of proteins that help protect the lungs. This deficiency can lead to complications like COPD. [3]

a. Complications of COPD

COPD can lead to a lot of bodily complications if left untreated. If you have COPD, you are more likely to experience respiratory infections, heart problems, lung cancer, high blood pressure, and depression.  A lack of oxygen in the body can result in heart problems, like heart disease. These conditions affect everyday life and can keep you from doing the activities you enjoy. If you can’t participate, then you may develop depression. It is essential to keep an eye on your mood as well as your COPD condition. Mental wellness is equally important to your physical wellness. [3]


If you notice increased breathlessness, you should contact your healthcare provider. Your doctor will likely ask you several preliminary questions to determine your condition. Those questions will likely include your smoking history, what activities affect your breath, and your family medical history. Tests will also be performed, which can include:

Spirometry: This is a breathing test that measures the speed and amount of air you can blow out of your lungs. If your score is low, then your doctor will determine if your lungs are functioning correctly.

Oximetry: This simple test involves attaching a monitor to your finger. This device will then measure the amount of oxygen in the blood. If the oxygen is low, you may have COPD.

Chest X-ray: If your doctor suspects that you already have lung damage, you may undergo a chest x-ray to see if emphysema is present in the lungs.

Other tests: You may need further tests, which can include a CT scan and blood tests. All of these tests will lead your doctor to an accurate diagnosis. [5]

a chest x-ray


COPD is not curable, so the goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and slow the progression of lung damage. Medications are typically the first line of defense to help control symptoms of COPD. Your doctor will likely prescribe a long-term maintenance inhaler as well as a rescue inhaler.

Bronchodilators relax the muscles around the airways and relieve shortness of breath. The maintenance inhalers are used every day to maintain a stable level of lung function. Spiriva and Serevent are common long-acting bronchodilators. If you experience sudden feelings of breathlessness, you may need a short-acting bronchodilator like Ventolin.

Depending on your condition, you may be prescribed a combination inhaler that includes both a bronchodilator and an inhaled corticosteroid. Inhaled steroids help to prevent lung exacerbation. Flovent and Breo Ellipta are common combination inhalers.

Medications are helpful, but you may also need other lung therapies. Oxygen therapy may be required for those with significantly reduced lung function. There are many lightweight, portable units a person can wear to receive oxygen all day if needed. It may also be helpful to participate in pulmonary rehabilitation programs. These programs can help those with COPD learn how to participate in everyday activities and exercises. [6]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.