HEALTHPLAN MAGAZINE

Understanding COPD - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Health Tips

What is COPD?

A number of progressive lung diseases are categorised by medical experts under the single broad term, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). These diseases include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. COPD is categorized as a disease that increases breathlessness.

Unfortunately, people tend not to notice the onset of COPD, imagining that slight breathlessness and coughing are just a natural part of getting old, especially if they are unfit or less active for example, or they smoke. In fact, COPD can develop over many years without any symptoms. Breathing problems are apt to get progressively worse over time and can limit regular activities, although treatment can help keep the condition under control, and early screening can identify COPD before a noticeable loss of lung function.

What are the Causes of COPD?

In COPD the lungs become inflamed, damaged and narrowed. There are a number of factors at the heart of the onset of COPD. These include:

  • Inhalation of pollutants, including smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.), and passive smoking. COPD is mainly found in people over the age of 40 who have a history of smoking. Approximately 90% of people who have COPD have smoked.
  • Fumes, chemicals and dust – particularly in an industrial setting, but also organic cooking fuel in the home.
  • Genetics - a genetic problem can means the lungs are more vulnerable to damage.

What are the Symptoms?

  • Increased breathlessness, especially when moving around
  • Frequent coughing (with and without phlegm)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Frequent chest infections

What are the Risk Factors?

Without treatment symptoms can get worse and should not be ignored. You should see your GP if you have persistent symptoms of COPD, especially if you're 40 plus, and smoke or have ever smoked.

It is best to begin treatment as quickly as possible, before your lungs become significantly impaired.

How is COPD Diagnosed?

Your GP will ask about your symptoms, your family history and your smoking history, listen to your chest, and will organise a breathing test to check for COPD or rule out other lung conditions, including asthma.

The breathing medication called a bronchodilator, which helps widen your airways. The test measures the volume of air you can breathe out in one second, and the total amount of air you breathe out.

The doctor may also arrange for a chest X-ray to look for problems in the lung, and take blood tests that will look for other conditions that can cause similar symptoms to COPD, including low iron levels (anaemia) and a high concentration of red blood cells in your blood (polycythaemia).

Other tests you may come across include an electrocardiogram (ECG), an echo-cardiogram, a peak flow test, a blood oxygen test, and a phlegm sample to check for signs of a chest infection.

How is COPD Treated?

Unfortunately, any damage that has been caused to the lungs before treatment starts is permanent, however treatment can help slow down progression and keep symptoms under control. Patients will be advised to cease smoking immediately, and may be prescribed inhalers and medications that will ease breathing issues.

In a small number of cases there is the chance of surgery or a lung transplant. In some people COPD may continue to get worse in-spite of treatment, and this will have a significant impact on quality of life.

Common Questions About COPD

Are Asthma and COPD the Same Thing?

No. Asthma is a separate respiratory disease, but can sometimes be mistaken for COPD because they share similar symptoms, particularly breathlessness, chronic coughing and wheezing.

COPD is usually as a result of smoking, whereas many children are diagnosed with asthma and come from smoke free homes.

Finally, while the severity of asthma severity can remain steady through an individual's lifetime, or even improves, COPD is a progressive disease that gets worse over time. Approximately 40 % of people who have COPD also have asthma, and asthma is considered a risk factor.

Is COPD Hereditary?

It can be caused by certain genetic factors in a small number of cases.

Can COPD Be Cured?

No, only treated and contained to enable the sufferer to lead an active life.

What Is the Life Expectancy with COPD?

COPD is a long-term condition that cannot be cured. People with COPD have an increased risk of dying earlier than those who do not, so life expectancy is decreased. The effect is most marked in current smokers.

Can You Die from COPD?

Yes you can.

What Are the Stages of COPD?

There are four stages of COPD. These are:

  • Stage 1 – very mild COPD
  • Stage 2 – moderate COPD
  • Stage 3 – severe emphysema/chronic bronchitis
  • Stage 4 – very severe COPD

Each stage will have a different impact on the sufferer. The higher the stage of COPD, the shorter the life expectancy. Doctors will monitor body mass index, airflow obstruction, dyspnoea (trouble breathing) and a person's exercise capacity to determine the stage they are at.