The confidence to live with COPD
When your lungs are healthy, tiny, stretchy sacs fill up with air every time you take a breath. When you exhale, the sacs deflate, and air leaves the lungs. It’s something most of us take for granted.
For the 16 million people living with COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – breathing is a challenge. The lungs’ air sacs are inflamed, damaged, or destroyed, making it more difficult to breathe air in and out.
Do I need a MedicAlert ID for COPD?
Wearing a bracelet for lung conditions, COPD or asthmacan help save your life in an emergency. A COPD medical alert bracelet lets first responders know that you have COPD so that they can avoid giving you any treatments that could aggravate the condition or lead to a reaction.
What is COPD?
COPD isn’t just one condition. The medical abbreviation COPD refers to a group of lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe. The conditions that fall under the umbrella of COPD include:
- Emphysema: Emphysema develops when the air sacs or alveoli in the lungs become damaged. The sacs rupture, so that air gets trapped in the lungs and can’t cycle through the blood properly. According to the American Lung Association, more than 3 million people in the U.S. have emphysema.
- Chronic bronchitis: The bronchial tubes carry air to and from the lungs. Chronic bronchitis develops when the tubes are irritated or inflamed, leading them to produce excessive mucus.
- Asthma: The type of asthma associated with COPD is also known as non-reversible asthma. It usually doesn’t respond to traditional asthma treatments.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two conditions most associated with COPD. In many cases, people living with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out, COPD affects nearly 16 million people in the U.S. People over the age of 65 are more likely to be diagnosed with one or more COPD conditions. Although traditionally thought of as a disease that primarily affects men, the CDC notes that more women have died of COPD since the start of the 21st century than men.
What causes COPD?
Tobacco use, notably cigarette smoking, is the leading cause of COPD. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to three-quarters of people diagnosed with COPD are current or former smokers. The chemicals and toxins found in cigarette smoke cause lasting damage to the lung tissues.
Although COPD is more likely to develop in smokers, people who avoid tobacco can also develop it. Some cases of COPD develop after prolonged exposure to pollutants in the air.
For example, exposure to chemical fumes or smoke in the workplace can increase a person’s risk of developing COPD. Exposure to secondhand smoke can also cause COPD.
In a very small number of cases, a genetic condition can be responsible for COPD, according to the American Lung Association. Some people are born with a deficiency in Alpha-1, a protein that helps protect the lungs. If COPD is due to a genetic condition, it usually develops earlier in life, when a person is in their 30s or 40s.
What are the symptoms of COPD?
Initially, a person with COPD might not have any signs of the condition. Symptoms usually develop after lung damage has become severe. Some common symptoms include:
- A chronic cough that produces mucus
- Frequent and recurring respiratory infections
- Shortness of breath, usually when doing everyday activities
- Blue lips or fingernails
- A feeling of tightness in the chest
In the later stages, COPD can lead to unintended weight loss. It can also cause swelling of the legs, feet and ankles.
COPD can contribute to other conditions, some of which might not seem related. For example, some people with COPD become depressed, particularly if the condition prevents them from doing activities they enjoy. There’s also a connection between COPD and heart issues, such as high blood pressure and heart failure.
Can you prevent COPD?
One of the best ways to prevent COPD is to avoid tobacco use or quit smoking. A smoking cessation program, including support from a physician and family and friends, can help people quit.
Avoiding chemicals that irritate the lungs can also help reduce a person’s risk of developing COPD. If your work exposes you to fumes, smoke or other pollutants, wearing protective gear can help you avoid inhaling particulates.
What are treatment options for COPD?
COPD treatments can help you breathe more easily and improve your quality of life. Treatments can include medications that help improve breathing function. Other treatment options include using supplemental oxygen and participating in a rehabilitation program. Some people with COPD might benefit from lung surgery, as well.
Along with medical treatments, making changes to lifestyle habits can make it easier to live with COPD. Regular exercise, under the supervision of a physician, can help people with COPD breathe easier. Breathing exercises can also help clear the airways and reduce symptoms of COPD.
Some people also find that using a humidifier at home and drinking a lot of water helps thin the mucus in the lungs and keep their airways clear.
As with any medical concern, you should consult your doctor for specific instructions on managing your condition.