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What is COPD?

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

COPD is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is caused by damage to the lungs over many years, usually from smoking.

COPD is often a mix of two diseases:

  • Chronic bronchitis (say "bron-KY-tus"). In chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes) get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. This can narrow or block the airways, making it hard for you to breathe.
  • Emphysema (say "em-fuh-ZEE-muh"). In a healthy person, the tiny air sacs in the lungs are like balloons. As you breathe in and out, they get bigger and smaller to move air through your lungs. But with emphysema, these air sacs are damaged and lose their stretch. Less air gets in and out of the lungs, which makes you feel short of breath.

COPD gets worse over time. You can't undo the damage to your lungs. But you can take steps to prevent more damage and to feel better.

What causes COPD?

COPD is almost always caused by smoking. Over time, breathing tobacco smoke irritates the airways and destroys the stretchy fibers in the lungs.

Other things that may put you at risk include breathing chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution over a long period of time. Secondhand smoke is also bad.

It usually takes many years for the lung damage to start causing symptoms, so COPD is most common in people who are older than 60.

You may be more likely to get COPD if you had a lot of serious lung infections when you were a child. People who get emphysema in their 30s or 40s may have a disorder that runs in families, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, but this is rare.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms are:

  • A long-lasting (chronic) cough.
  • Mucus that comes up when you cough.
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse when you exercise.

As COPD gets worse, you may be short of breath even when you do simple things like get dressed or fix a meal. It gets harder to eat or exercise, and breathing takes much more energy. People often lose weight and get weaker.

At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is called a COPD exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). An exacerbation can range from mild to life-threatening. The longer you have COPD, the more severe these flare-ups will be.

How is COPD diagnosed?

To find out if you have COPD, a doctor will:

  • Do a physical exam and listen to your lungs.
  • Ask you questions about your past health and whether you smoke or have been exposed to other things that can irritate your lungs.
  • Have you do breathing tests, including spirometry, to find out how well your lungs work.
  • Do chest X-rays and other tests to help rule out other problems that could be causing your

10 FAQs About Living With COPD

 

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It refers to two long-term lung diseases -- chronic bronchitis and emphysema -- that often occur together. COPD makes it difficult for you to breathe. There is no cure for COPD, but you can take steps to manage the disease.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with COPD, you probably have many questions. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about living with COPD, its symptoms, treatment, and causes.

1. What happens to my lungs if I have COPD?

Tubes, called airways, carry air in and out of your lungs. If you have COPD, these airways may become partially blocked from swelling or mucus. This makes it more difficult to breathe.

At the end of the airways are many tiny balloon-like air sacs, which inflate and deflate when you breathe in and out. With COPD, these air sacs lose their elasticity. This can lead to the collapse of small airways and also make it more difficult for you to breathe.

2. What causes COPD?

Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of COPD. Being around secondhand smoke -- from others who smoke -- also plays a role in an individual developing COPD.

Other causes of COPD include long-term exposure to other irritants, such as:

  • Chemicals
  • Dust
  • Air pollution

In rare cases, genes may play a role in COPD. People who lack a protein called alpha 1 antitrypsin may be more likely to develop the disease. Without the protein, their lungs are more vulnerable to developing COPD. If they are smokers, their disease tends to progress more quickly.

 

3. What are the signs and symptoms of COPD?

These are the most common COPD symptoms:

  • A cough that doesn't go away
  • Coughing up lots of mucus
  • Shortness of breath, especially with activity
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Limitations in activity

4. How is COPD diagnosed?

To diagnose COPD, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, do a physical exam, and conduct breathing tests.

The most common breathing test used to confirm a diagnosis of COPD is spirometry. This easy, painless test involves breathing into a large hose connected to a machine, called a spirometer. The spirometer measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can blow air out of your lungs.

Your doctor may suggest additional tests to rule out other lung problems, such as asthma or heart failure, or to plan treatment. These may include other lung function tests, a chest X-ray, or a test to measure the level of oxygen in your blood.

Treatment Overview

Although COPD cannot be cured, it can be managed. The goals of treatment are to:

  • Slow down the disease by avoiding tobacco smoke and air pollution.
  • Limit your symptoms, such as shortness of breath.
  • Increase your activity level.
  • Improve your overall health.
  • Prevent and treat flare-ups . A flare-up, or exacerbation, is when your symptoms quickly get worse and stay worse.

Many people are able to manage their COPD well enough to take part in their usual daily activities, hobbies, and family events.

Tips to Help With Treatment

At first, treatment for COPD helps you breathe better and slow the disease. Much of the treatment includes things you do for yourself:

  • Quit smoking. This is so important. And it's never too late. No matter how long you have had COPD or how serious it is, quitting smoking will help slow down the disease and improve your quality of life. Today's medicines offer lots of help for people who want to quit. You will double your chances of quitting even if medicine is the only treatment you use to quit, but your odds get even better when you combine medicine and other quit strategies, such as counseling.1
  • Stay active. If you stay active, you may have less shortness of breath, have a better attitude about your life and the disease, and be less likely to feel depressed or isolated from friends and family. Exercise improves shortness of breath and will help you be more active.
  • Stay healthy. The flu, pneumonia, and other illnesses involving your lungs can make your COPD worse. Do your best to avoid them:
    • Wash your hands often.
    • Stay away from people who have a cold or the flu.
    • Talk with your doctor about getting a yearly flu vaccine and a pneumococcal shot. If you've already had one pneumococcal shot, ask your doctor if you should have a second shot. Sometimes a second shot is advised for people who got their first shot when they were younger than 65.
  • Eat regularly and well. Muscle weakness and weight loss are common with severe COPD. And they make it harder for your body to fight the disease.
  • Avoid triggers. Stay away from things that can trigger a flare-up, including indoor and outdoor air pollution, cold dry air, hot humid air, and high altitudes.
  • Learn how to breathe. Learn ways to breathe that improve airflow in and out of your lungs. Learn ways to clear your lungs to save energy and oxygen.
  • Rest often. Take rest breaks during household chores and other activities. Talk to an occupational or physical therapist about finding ways to do everyday activities with less effort.
  • Oxygen treatment: Oxygen treatment is mainly used to prevent right-sided heart failure or keep it from getting worse.

Tips for Traveling with Oxygen

 

Even if you don’t have a portable oxygen concentrator, that doesn’t mean you aren’t able to travel. With proper planning and precautions, you can travel as much as you want. Don’t let anything stand in the way of you seeing loved ones near and far.

Do Your Homework Before Leaving

If you are going to be far away from your home doctor, it is a good idea to scout out a doctor and pharmacist you can reach in the area you are staying in - should you need to go in or get any replacements. This will help you travel with some peace of mind knowing that oxygen will be available wherever you go. If you are traveling for a long time, you also may want to look in potential places to stop along the way to refuel the tank if needed.

Travel by Car

One of the benefits of a normal oxygen concentrator is that they are light enough to take with you in the car or train. However, you may want to be sure that you will have no issues with transport. If you think you may need assistance, it’s time to seek a travel companion. Thankfully, most oxygen concentrators are now built to be lightweight, even if they aren’t technically portable. You can use them as if they are. Be sure you have the proper power outlets available. There are many adapters that can be used, but a portable backup may be a smart choice, should you need to rely on one powered by a battery. You should also be sure you are in a well-ventilated vehicle.

Travel by Cruise Ship

If you’re going on a cruise, good for you! There are many people with oxygen that sail out on the big old blue. You will want to be sure you have permission from your physician to see if you need to bring your own oxygen or if the cruise line provides it for you. They are accustomed to this, so be sure to give them a call to see how easy they can make the process.

Travel by Plane

Traveling by plane takes a little more preparation, as most airlines will not let you fly without a portable tank. You will need more letters of approval to fly. First, you will need a doctor to sign off on your travel to submit to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airport will also require proof of need for the oxygen supplies as you go through security. It’s a good idea to call them ahead of time to ensure that you are meeting their expectations. Realize that the altitude will be changing and you need to have backups in case anything should go wrong. This means having an extra battery and extra oxygen. One of the benefits of having a portable oxygenator is that you are able to take it everywhere, unlike a normal oxygenator that cannot be allowed on a flight.

Don’t let your oxygen concentrator keep you from traveling and living your best life. Contact us today for yours!