Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is a progressive disease marked by a person’s inability to empty air out of their lungs, which makes it difficult for them to breathe.
COPD includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Symptoms of COPD include breathlessness, a lasting cough that produces phlegm, and chest infections.
1. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 3 million people worldwide died from COPD in 2015, which accounts for 5 percent of all the deaths that year.
The biggest cause of COPD is smoking. However, COPD is not strictly a smoking disease.
The WHO predicts that in the next 10 years, deaths from COPD will increase by more than 30 percent worldwide.
More than 90 percent of deaths caused by COPD occur in poorer countries. In these areas, there are less likely to be effective strategies for prevention and control in place or that are accessible to those in need.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), around 12 million people in the United States were diagnosed with COPD in 2013. Most of these people are at least 40 years old. The COPD Foundation report that about 70 percent of all the people in the U.S. that have COPD are under 65.
2. Currently, COPD occurs in more American women than men.
According to the American Lung Association, more than 7 million women in the U.S. have COPD. Many millions more have the disease but have not been diagnosed. The number of women who have died from COPD has increased by 400 percent over the past 30 years. Since 2000, more women than men have died of COPD in the U.S.
The American Lung Association give some staggering statistics regarding women and COPD. Women who smoke are around 22 times more likely to die from COPD than nonsmoking women.
Women who smoke may develop more severe COPD at a younger age, and they are at increased risk of developing certain cancers including cervical, kidney, bladder, and cancers of the head and neck.
3. The number one cause of COPD is cigarette smoke from either smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke.
When a person smokes a cigarette, over 7,000 mostly harmful chemicals are produced. These toxins reduce the lungs’ ability to defend themselves against infections and cause inflammation. Over time, this irritation causes the air passages to narrow, leading to swelling in the air tubes and destruction of air sacs, each of which is a contributing factor to COPD.
4. COPD can also be genetic.
Some people have a type of COPD called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD). This type of COPD is very rare and is the only known specific genetic risk factor that has been associated with the emphysema type of COPD.
Alpha-1 Antitrypsin is a protein that is made in the liver and protects the lungs. If a person’s liver does not produce enough of this protein, the lungs may be at risk. This may result in a person developing emphysema and COPD at an earlier age. A person may also develop liver problems.
5. There are four stages of lung function loss in COPD, which range from mild to very severe.
People who develop COPD may experience a variety of symptoms early on. People should be wary of an ongoing cough, especially if it produces a large amount of mucus. Shortness of breath even when performing simple activities such as walking is also a warning sign, along with frequent respiratory infections.
Other symptoms include wheezing and chest tightness. In severe cases, people with COPD may have trouble talking or catching their breath or even performing basic tasks. Their lips or fingernails may turn blue or grey due to low oxygen levels in the blood, which can lead to periods of confusion.
6. COPD can be difficult to diagnose because some patients do not show any symptoms until the later stages and symptoms can also mimic other conditions.
A spirometry test
A spirometry test is the main test for COPD.
The main lung function test initially used to test for COPD is called spirometry. A person will take a deep breath in and then blow as hard as they can into a tube connected to a machine called a spirometer. The machine measures how much air the person breathes out as well as how fast they are able to blow air out.
A person’s lung function, along with their symptoms, determines the severity of their disease. This provides an important guide when creating a treatment plan.
7. Some people with COPD have a problem getting enough oxygen and removing enough carbon dioxide, which creates an oxygen imbalance.
In some cases, oxygen therapy may be useful in people who consistently cannot get the oxygen they need. Oxygen treatment can prevent oxygen levels from dropping dangerously low, as well as reducing the strain on the heart.
If a person is a smoker and is diagnosed with COPD, the best treatment option is to quit smoking and to follow the doctor’s recommendations. It is best to avoid lung irritants, like secondhand smoke, pollutants or anything that triggers allergies, and to keep up with all doctor appointments and treatment plans.
A person with COPD should pay close attention to their day-to-day symptoms and have a plan for emergencies. Any change or flare-up of their usual symptoms requires medical attention.
Three COPD myths
1. One common myth surrounding COPD is that people think it is only a smoker’s disease, but that could not be further from the truth.
A middle-aged man is coughing.
Although people who smoke are most at risk of developing COPD, many nonsmokers also have the disease.
The NIH state that 10-20 percent of people who develop COPD have never smoked. Though smokers are the highest risk, people exposed to secondhand smoke and other pollutants from the environment or the workplace are also at risk.
The COPD Foundation state that people who are exposed to air pollutants in an occupational environment contribute to 19.2 percent of COPD cases.
There are also people with COPD who have not been exposed to any of the potential risks that may lead to the disease.
2. Another myth is that COPD is not treatable.
Although there is no cure for COPD, there are medicines, procedures, and lifestyle changes that can slow the progress of the disease and lead to a higher quality of life.
It is important that COPD is treated as soon as possible because it can cause additional complications. People with COPD are more likely to catch respiratory infections including colds, the flu, and even pneumonia.
A respiratory infection makes it more difficult to breathe and causes additional damage to the lung tissue. Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and depression are also common complications. The chance of developing lung cancer also increases.
3. People with COPD should not think that it is impossible to be active or enjoy life due to their illness.
Even in severe COPD, there are ways to make life more manageable. Although it takes hard work and patience, people with COPD are able to lead quality lives.
The exact treatment plan depends on the stage and the severity of the COPD. Lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining physical activity including pulmonary rehabilitation, will typically be encouraged.
Doctors may also prescribe medicines including bronchodilators and steroids to open the airways and reduce airway inflammation to help the person breathe better.