What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that essentially makes it hard to breathe. It causes persistent cough with phlegm, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest due to the narrowing of airways. It is primarily caused by smoking, which irritates and damages the lungs.
COPD over years causes permanent changes in the lungs; air sacs in the lungs that are responsible for absorbing oxygen and disposing off waste gases, lose their elasticity causing shortness of breath (emphysema), and walls of the airways become thick and inflamed, producing more mucus than usual making it hard to breathe (chronic bronchitis).
COPD is a leading cause of disability and death; it is estimated about 3 million people are living with it in the UK, while only 900,000 have been diagnosed. It develops slowly, usually starting to affect people over the age of 35. It cannot be cured, however treatments and lifestyle changes can help you manage the condition and lead an active lifestyle.
COPD usually develops over many years, causing mild or no symptoms at first. It starts becoming noticeable after the age of 35, while most people are diagnosed with the condition only after the age of 50.
Common symptoms that develop with COPD include;- Increasing breathlessness with exercise or activity
- Persistent cough with phlegm
- Frequent chest infections, especially in the winters
As the condition progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe out. It is common to experience flare-ups a couple of times a year when symptoms are significantly exacerbated.
Secondary symptoms of COPD can include weight loss, fatigue and swollen ankles.
The primary cause of COPD is smoking, responsible for almost 90% of cases. The likelihood of developing the condition increases the longer you smoke. It irritates and inflames the airways causing permanent damage to the walls and air sacs.
Breathing in second hand smoke, chemical fumes, dust, air pollution and genetic disorders may also contribute to the development of COPD. Long-term exposure to these may significantly increase your risk, which can be cautiously avoided.
Having a sibling with severe COPD, puts you at a greater risk of developing the condition. Additionally there is a rare genetic tendency to develop COPD, whereby a protein, Alpha-1-antitrypsin that protects your lungs is deficient, allowing damage to the lungs by other naturally occurring enzymes in the body.
COPD can be diagnosed by your GP based on your symptoms, medical and family history and certain tests. It is important to diagnose the condition as early as possible to allow for treatment to slow down the deterioration of lungs.
Following a chest examination, you might be recommended for one or more tests;
A spirometry test assesses how well your lungs work. It involves taking a deep breath and exhaling as fast as you can into a mouthpiece that is attached to a spirometer. It measures the volume of air you can breathe out in the first second of exhalation and the amount of air you breath out in total. You may have to do this a few times for an accurate reading, which are compared to average measurements for your age, sex and height.
Peak Flow Test
A peak flow meter is used to measure how fast your can blow air out of your lungs in one breath. It may require practice to get it right. You may be asked to measure your peak flow over a period of weeks at home, as lung function changes throughout the day.
Chest x ray
A chest x-ray can show if you have another lung condition causing the symptoms
A blood test can determine if the symptoms are due to anaemia.
There is cure for COPD, however treatment can be prescribed to slow the progression of the condition and reduce the severity of its symptoms.
If you smoke, the most effective way to stop the progression is by stopping to smoke, avoiding further damage to your lungs. Additionally there are medicines available depending on the severity of your condition.
An inhaler is a device that delivers medication directly into your lungs as your breathe in. You could be prescribed an inhaler that is used to relax the muscles surrounding the airways, for immediate relief, such as Ventolin. Additionally, you could be prescribed an inhaler that works to reduce the inflammation and sensitivity of the airway, to be used regularly, such as Clenil or Qvar.
These work to make the mucus and phlegm in your throat thinner and easier to cough up, such as Carbocisteine. It is particularly beneficial for people with a persistent cough or those who experiences frequent flare-ups.
If you have a chest infection, a short course of antibiotics may be prescribed, such as Amoxicillin.