What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a general term used to describe lung diseases like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma. These diseases all carry the same symptom of increasing breathlessness. COPD affects about 16 million Americans and millions more are unaware they have it.

COPD is currently a progressive and incurable disease. However, there are treatment options that make COPD manageable and they allow people to breathe a bit easier. People can have COPD and still live happy, fulfilling lives



Damage to the air sacs, or alveoli, causes emphysema. The walls inside the alveoli disappear, transforming many small sacs to single, larger ones. These larger sacs do not take in oxygen as well. Because of this, less oxygen is absorbed into the blood.

When the alveoli are damaged, the lungs also become too stretched out and lose their dexterity. The airways become less rigid and the air is trapped in the lungs. Because of this, it becomes harder to exhale and this creates the feeling of shortness of breath.

COPD Empysema Diagram

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is caused by damage to the bronchial tubes. When this occurs, the bronchial tubes are irritated or swollen. Symptoms of this irritation will include coughing and shortness of breath. Bronchitis switches to chronic bronchitis when mucus comes up with coughing and the coughing lasts at least three months for two years in a row.

In the bronchial tubes of the lungs, there are hair-like fibers, called cilia. The cilia help move mucus up the tubes so it can be coughed out. When people have chronic bronchitis, the tubes lose their cilia. This makes it harder to cough up mucus, which causes more coughing. The bronchial tubes become more irritated because of the excess coughing. This creates more mucus, which causes the tubes to swell and makes it hard to breathe. Even a little bit of smoking prevents the cilia from working properly.

COPD Bronchitis Diagram

Non-reversible asthma

Non-reversible (refractory) asthma is a form of asthma that does not respond to normal asthma medications. During an asthma attack, bronchial airways tighten and swell. Medications can normally resolve this by re-opening the airways and returning them to how they were before the attack. But in refractory, medications can’t reverse the tightening and swelling of the airways.

COPD Asthma Diagram

Why is COPD awareness important?

Leaving conditions misdiagnosed, untreated, or undertreated may cause them to worsen faster over time. It’s better to address the symptoms with proper medication and therapy to avoid risks. For instance, a lot of adults are misdiagnosed with asthma. By receiving a proper diagnosis, people can receive the appropriate treatments and monitoring. There are currently no cures for COPD, but treatments are available to help you live a better life.


What causes COPD?

COPD is mostly caused by inhaling pollutants which may include tobacco smoke and second-hand smoke. Environmental exposure from fumes, chemicals, and dust are also contributing factors for many people who develop COPD.

Genetics can even play a factor in people who develop COPD. Even if you have never smoked or have never been exposed to strong lung irritants, you can still be diagnosed with COPD.

Most COPD is the result of breathing in unhealthy toxins. Smoking the number one cause of COPD in the US. When smoke enters the lungs, it causes irritation. In response to this, the body sends white blood cells to the area. The white blood cells release enzymes that deal with the smoke, but also it also destroys lung tissue. Usually, the body can protect itself from the enzymes. However, tobacco smoke can overwhelm these defenses, resulting in COPD.


The importance of not smoking

Quitting smoking can reduce the progression of COPD. It will also increase the effectiveness of your treatment. Your breathing, clogged sinuses, and coughing can improve within a few weeks of stopping smoking. Other benefits of quitting can include:

  • More energy
  • Less coughing
  • Better liver function
  • Better digestion
  • Healthier air in your home and car
  • Less expense

COPD can even be caused by inhaling dust, chemicals, or fumes over a long period of time. Commons pollutants can occur at are your home and workplace.

Harmful materials to look out for include ammonia, asbestos, carbon monoxide,  and fumes. Bacteria, mold, cleaners, smoke, and dust can also be contributing factors.

How to reduce your risks from pollutants:

  • Use pump sprays. Do not use plug-in air fresheners.
  • Buy safer, natural cleaners. Wear an N-95* respirator mask if you do use cleaners.
  • Have someone else perform cleaning where there will be a lot of dust. Remember to regularly change filters for refrigerators, dryers, and furnaces.
  • Keep indoor humidity below 40 percent (use a humidity meter, if necessary)

*An N-95 respirator mask is a mask that can filter out 95 percent of particles in the air if fitted and worn correctly.


How is COPD diagnosed?

It’s easy to mistake signs like shortness of breath and coughing as a normal part of aging, but they could be symptoms of COPD. Therefore, it’s important to speak with your doctor as soon as you notice any signs. COPD can progress without noticeable shortness of breath. If you would like to check for COPD, ask your doctor about ordering a spirometry test

A spirometry test determines how well your lungs are functioning. It’s an easy and simple test that can help diagnose COPD. When you take the test, you will be asked to blow all the air out of your lungs into a mouthpiece connected to a device called a spirometer. This machine will calculate two numbers that your doctor will use to evaluate your lungs. Based on the results, your physicians may order additional tests to see what is causing your symptoms, if any.

Common symptoms for COPD can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Frequent coughing
  • Constant shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Increased breathlessness

COPD Causes Diagram

How is COPD treated?

Here are the goals for COPD treatment:

  • Relieve your current symptoms
  • Slow the progress of the disease
  • Improve your ability to stay active
  • Prevent and treat complications with the disease
  • Improve your overall lifestyle 🙂

Quitting smoking is the most important lifestyle change you can take to treat COPD. Talk with your physician about programs and products that can assist you with quitting.

Try to also avoid secondhand smoke or areas with dust, fumes, or other toxic pollutants you can inhale.

In some severe cases, you have trouble eating due to shortness of breath or a lack of energy. This can worsen your symptoms and increase your risk of infections. Please talk with your doctor about maintaining eating habits that will help you meet your nutritional needs.

Also, talk with your physician about what activities are safe for you. It may be harder for you to stay active with your symptoms. However, staying active can strengthen your breathing muscles and improve your well-being.

Besides the above recommendations, there are several plans a doctor may prescribe to treat your COPD:

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program that educates people on how to manage their COPD symptoms to improve their quality of life.
  • To avoid lung infections, certain vaccines like the flu and pneumonia vaccine are important for individuals with COPD.
  • A supplemental oxygen tank may be needed if your blood oxygen levels are too low.


How can you help?

If any of the following apply to you, please speak with your doctor about getting tested:

  • You have a history of smoking
  • You have long-term exposure to air pollutants
  • You have chronic coughing with/without mucus
  • You experience wheezing
  • You constantly have shortness of breath that is getting worse over time
  • You can’t keep up with your peers

Talk to your physician about taking a spirometry test. Early screening can target COPD before major loss of lung wellness occurs.


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