What Is COPD? What Is Emphysema?
05 Mar 2009
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic disease that makes it hard for the patient to breathe. It is a progressive disease – meaning, it gets worse with time. A patient with COPD coughs a lot; the coughing brings up a large amount of mucus. The patient will most likely wheeze, be short of breath, experience tightness of the chest, as well as other symptoms.
The majority of people who suffer from COPD are either current regular smokers or people who used to smoke regularly. Air pollution, chemical fumes, and/or dust may also contribute to the development of COPD. However, smoking is by far the largest factor.
Understanding COPD and Emphysema
To understand COPD it is necessary to know how the lungs work. When you breathe in, the air goes down your windpipe into tubes in your lungs – these tubes are called bronchial tubes or airways. The airways look like upside down trees or broccoli, with several branches. At the end of the branches are tiny air sacs called alveoli.
The airways and alveoli are flexible (elastic). When you breathe in they fill up with air like a balloon, when you breath out they deflate.
The airways and alveoli of a person with COPD do not get as much air as those of a person who does not have COPD. This could be due to one or more of the following reasons (In the USA and many other countries COPD includes emphysema and chronic obstructive bronchitis):
- The airways and alveoli become less elastic
- The walls between many of the alveoli are destroyed
- The walls of the airways swell up (they become inflamed)
- The airways become clogged up with excess mucus
- The walls between many alveoli are damaged when a patient has emphysema. This causes them to lose their shape and become floppy. As the walls become totally destroyed, the patient ends up with a few large alveoli instead of many small ones
- In chronic obstructive bronchitis, the patient’s airway lining is permanently irritated and inflamed. The lining consequently thickens. Thick mucus builds up in the airways, making it harder for the patient to breathe.
- The majority of COPD patients suffer from both chronic obstructive bronchitis and emphysema. In such cases the term COPD is more accurate.
How common is COPD?
COPD is the fourth major cause of death in the USA. Over 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD. Health experts believe there could be another 12 million American who suffer from COPD but have not been diagnosed.
COPD develops gradually over a long period – it gets worse with time. Eventually, the patient finds it very hard and/or impossible to do routine activities. A person with severe COPD may not even be able to walk or cook.
COPD is nearly always diagnosed when the patient is middle-aged or elderly.
There is no cure for COPD. Once the damage to the airways and lungs has occurred, there is currently no way to reverse it. Measures can be taken to slow down the progression of the disease.
What causes COPD?
Approximately 80% to 90% of patients have COPD because of smoking. COPD can also be caused by air pollution, having repeated lung infections as a child, second-hand smoke (passive smoking), and a rare genetic disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.
What are the Symptoms of COPD?
- shortness of breath
- coughing up a lot of phlegm (mucus)
- a general feeling of tiredness
- frequent chest infections (flu, colds, etc)
It is common for people to confuse the onset of COPD with the normal symptoms of getting older, such as tiredness and shortness of breath. It is important to get yourself diagnosed if you experience any of these symptoms.
How do I prevent COPD?
Do not smoke. If you smoke, give up. It is never too late to give up smoking.
If I already have COPD is it too late to give up smoking?
It is never too late to give up smoking. Quitting smoking will slow down the progression of COPD.
How is COPD treated?
- the patient stops smoking
- the patient has medications, including pills, inhalers (puffers) and supplemental oxygen
- the patient joins a pulmonary rehabilitation class – a specialized exercise program
What is COPD? – Video
A video explaining about COPD, together with diagrams. Video by Illumistream.
How long does a COPD patient live?
A patient who is diagnosed with COPD can live for a long time after diagnosis – this may depend on many things, including:
- the patient’s age
- how severe the lung damage is
- whether the smoking is stopped or cut down
- what type of medical care and treatment the patient receives
- what other health problems the patient might have
Sources – National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Wikipedia, National Institutes of Health
Written by – Christian Nordqvist
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