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Breathing difficulties? It could be COPD

COPD is an acronym for the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is the name given to the lung inflammation that hampers the flow of air from the lungs. A person suffering from COPD cannot breathe properly.

COPD is predominantly a combination of two lung diseases, often caused by smoking. They are:

  • Chronic bronchitis: The air passages of the lungs gets inflamed and produces a lot of mucous, resulting in their constriction and blockage making breathing difficult.
  • Emphysema: The air sacs lose their elasticity and are unable to exhale the air properly, resulting in breathlessness.

India has approximately 30 million COPD patients.

COPD

Causes and risk factors

Causes

COPD is caused due to obstruction in the air passage. The common causes of COPD are:

  • Smoking: Smoking cigarette, tobacco, beedi (Indian cigarette) and marijuana are the leading causes of COPD. Chain smokers and long-term smokers are more likely to be COPD patients.
  • Inhalation of industrial dust and chemical fumes.
  • Genetic disorder with low production of a protein- alpha 1 antitrypsin (AAt) that protects the lungs from COPD.

Risk Factors

Apart from the above-mentioned causes, several risk factors contribute to the risk of development of COPD:

  • Family history of COPD.
  • Prematurely born babies are at risk of getting COPD in their adulthood.
  • Asthma patients are likely to suffer from COPD.
  • Air pollution is a risk factor for COPD.
  • Second-hand smokers are at the risk of getting lung infections and COPD.
  • Working in industries which involves inhaling dust, chemical fumes, etc.

Symptoms and signs

COPD mainly manifests with the symptoms related to breathing difficulties. Symptoms may persist and worsen with time. Individuals may experience exacerbations (sudden flaring of symptoms).

Commonly seen symptoms are:

  • A chronic cough
  • Increased mucous production
  • Mucous can be white, yellow, greenish or clear
  • Wheezing
  • Breathlessness
  • Heavy feeling in the chest
  • Frequent lung infections
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Depression

Diagnosis

If you have been experiencing more than one of the COPD symptoms, initially, the doctor will check your medical history and conduct a physical examination.

Based on the initial examination, further tests would be recommended to confirm COPD, which includes:

  • Lung function tests: These tests evaluate the lung capacity and the speed at which the lungs can blow out air (spirometry).
  • CT scans: Used for detecting emphysema and cancers of the lungs.
  • Chest x-rays: To detect emphysema and rule out other lung related issues.
  • Arterial blood gas analysis: It is done to know how well the lungs bring in oxygen and take out carbon dioxide from the body.
  • ECG: These tests are conducted to rule out other lung infections, problems of the heart, etc.

chestxray

Treatment and prevention

Treatment

A combination of preventive measures and medications are recommended for treatment of COPD.

Treatment course would ideally be:

  • Cessation of smoking.
  • Medications to help breathe normally and for relieving the symptoms.
  • Severe cases of COPD may require lung therapies like oxygen therapy or a pulmonary rehabilitation programme.
  • Management of COPD flares or exacerbations.
  • For advanced stages of COPD where the condition is not improving or in cases where the inflammation is not responding to medications/therapies, doctors may suggest lung surgery or lung transplantation.

Prevention

COPD is preventable to a great extent. Observing the precautionary measures and a timely diagnosis and management can reduce the risk of COPD.

Some of the important preventive measures are:

  • Stop smoking or never smoke
  • Follow healthy habits
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet
  • Avoid inhaling polluted air, any smoke, fumes or industrial dust

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Complications

Breathing difficulties caused by COPD can increase the chances of other health complications. These complications can be:

  • High blood pressure
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart diseases, later in life
  • Lung infections
  • Depression

Next Steps

If you have been diagnosed with COPD, you can still lead a normal life and manage your COPD. Follow your doctor’s advice and take preventive steps to minimise the damage caused by COPD.

Red flags

Seek medical consultation if you are a smoker and have been coughing with a lot of mucous for the past few months.

Consult a top Pulmonologist

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References

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  • What is COPD? -National heart lung and blood institute- Accessed on 4 February 2016- http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd
  • What is COPD? -COPD foundation- Accessed on 4 February 2016, http://www.copdfoundation.org/What-is-COPD/Understanding-COPD/What-is-COPD.aspx
  • COPD-American lung association- Accessed on 4 February 2016 http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/?referrer=https://www.google.co.in/
  • COPD: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder-British lung foundation-Accessed on 4 February 2016 https://www.blf.org.uk/Page/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-COPD
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease-The Lung Association- Accessed on 4 February 2016 https://www.lung.ca/copd
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease-Indian J Med Res 137- Accessed on 4 February 2016, http://icmr.nic.in/ijmr/2013/february/0203.pdf
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Indian guidelines and the road ahead-lung India- Accessed on 4 February 2016, http://www.lungindia.com/article.asp?issn=0970-2113;year=2013;volume=30;issue=3;spage=175;epage=177;aulast=Koul
  • COPD in India: Iceberg or volcano?-Journal of thoracic disease PMC-accessed on 4 February 2016- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3378191/

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