Have you ever felt like gasping for breath even after doing the bare minimum? Do you find yourself bringing up sputum or consider it difficult to breathe because of mucous in your windpipe? Do you have frequent cough attacks that only get worse in winters? If it’s happening to you more frequently, it’s time to get yourself evaluated for COPD.
Also known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, COPD is a potentially dangerous respiratory condition affecting people on a global level. In 2019, it was the third leading cause of death, triggering 3.23 million fatalities in different parts of the world, according to the WHO.
This article will help you understand more about COPD, its symptoms, causes, and how to manage it before it is too late.
What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD is a progressive respiratory illness that targets the lungs, making it extremely hard to breathe. The name comprises four different terms so let’s look at the meaning of each of them to understand it better:
Chronic: This means that it is a long-term condition that is not likely to go away
Obstructive: This means it causes hindrance in breathing by narrowing your airways
Pulmonary: This means that it targets your lungs
Disease: This indicates that it is a medical condition
COPD is a broad term that can be sub-categorized into two different issues: emphysema and bronchitis.
- Bronchitis: It is an issue in which your airways become narrow and inflamed followed by the production of a copious amount of phlegm
- Emphysema: This condition affects the small air sacs present in your lungs where the oxygen particles you breathe in enter into the bloodstream. As these air sacs start getting destroyed, the lungs stop working efficiently.
Both of these make it harder to breathe by inflaming the tissue lining the airway, damaging the lungs, and producing excess mucus that blocks the airways.
What Causes COPD?
The primary cause of COPD is long-term damage to the lungs, usually secondary to inhaling a harmful substance like cigarette residues. In addition to this, air pollution, dust, certain air chemicals, and fumes also contribute to its development.
The presence of certain factors can double your risk of developing COPD in the future. These include:
- Age of 35 or more
- Chronic smoking habit
- History of chest problems in childhood
- Family history of COPD or other chest problems
- Having a rare genetic condition called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency
How to Identify COPD Symptoms?
Keep an eye on the following symptoms to steer clear of COPD and catch it in time:
- Getting short of breath very easily, even when you are doing everyday tasks like walking or performing house chores
- Frequent wheezing in cold weather
- Developing long-term coughs more frequently
- Producing copious amounts of phlegm
The pattern of symptoms may vary from one person to another. You may get them all at once or some at a time. Sometimes, the symptoms tend to worsen when you breathe in smoke or develop an infection. In severe cases, COPD can make you lose weight, reduce appetite, and cause swelling in the ankles.
How is COPD diagnosed?
The normal health checkup for COPD begins with a detailed history-taking session. In this session, your doctor will ask you about common COPD symptoms like too much sputum in the throat, breathlessness, and cough. You will also be asked how your problem affects your daily life along with other lifestyle questions like exposure to fumes or cigarette smoke.
If there is a suspicion of COPD, your doctor may suggest undergoing one or more of the following tests:
For the most accurate diagnosis, spirometry is the best. The test involves using a special machine in which you blow as hard as you can. The machine helps measure the amount of air that you can breathe out at once which is known as lung capacity. If there’s something wrong with this value, chances are there’s something wrong with your lungs.
Chest Imaging and blood workup
These tests cannot help in developing a definitive diagnosis for COPD. However, your healthcare provider may order them in order to exclude any other possible issues with the lungs.
Calculation of BMI or body mass index is an important part of the assessment to check if you have healthy body weight. This is because being underweight or overweight can worsen COPD and if you fall under either of the categories, steps can be taken to improve it.
For better diagnosis, you may also be referred to a specialist doctor called a pulmonologist.
How to Treat COPD?
Unfortunately, the lung damage caused by COPD is permanent and cannot be reversed. However, appropriate treatment can be commenced to slow down the progression of this issue.
For most people, a doctor may prescribe the following:
If COPD is making it hard for you to breathe, you will be given an inhaler i.e. a device that supplies medicine directly into your lungs as you breathe. It may be a long-acting inhaler for longer relief or a short-acting one for emergency use.
These medicines are used to cope with the high amounts of thick phlegm produced in your throat that might be making it hard for you to breathe.
If you commonly suffer from bad flare-ups of COPD, you might be asked to take short courses of steroids to control swelling in your airways.
Antibiotics can be prescribed in case you catch a lung infection. Some common symptoms of a lung infection include excessive coughing, feeling more breathless, and noticing a change in the color of the sputum.
Pulmonary rehabilitation refers to a specialized program that emphasizes educating patients about their disease and teaching them exercises for managing it. The program includes 2 or more sessions per week and it goes on for at least 6 weeks. Within each session, you are given dietary advice, taught exercises, educated about COPD, and supported emotionally and psychologically.
Long-term Oxygen Therapy (LTOT)
If COPD is causing oxygen levels in your blood to drop, a doctor may advise you to inhale oxygen at home through a mask or nasal tubes.
Living with COPD: Tips And Tricks to Keep it Under Control
In addition to the medical interventions mentioned above, there are some things that you can do from your end to keep COPD well-controlled. These tips are mentioned below:
Give up smoking
Giving up smoking is one of the best things that you can do to manage COPD. While it can be extremely difficult and challenging to drop a long-term habit on your own, there are different ways to seek help. You can try joining a smoking cessation clinic, get medications from a doctor, or use nicotine replacement therapies. Special counseling sessions and support groups are also present to help ease your journey.
Live and eat healthily
Shortness of breath associated with COPD can make it really hard for you to eat and live healthily. However, eating carefully and getting enough exercise is extremely important to improve your symptoms and overall health. So talk to your healthcare professional about how you can manage these aspects in the best way possible. Mentioned below are some tips that you can follow in the meantime:
- Eat more frequently but in smaller portions
- Make sure to drink enough water with and between meals
- Include one fruit or vegetable in every meal
- Try performing light exercises to maintain your muscle strength
- Be compliant to your physical therapy session, if you have been prescribed one
Get plenty of rest
Rest is the ultimate key to health. However, with problems like COPD, your sleep is very likely to get disturbed. To restore healthy patterns of sleeping, talk to your doctor. Meanwhile, you can try following the tips mentioned below:
- Do not nap throughout the day so you are tired near bedtime
- Avoid doing any exercise at least 4 hours before bedtime
- Avoid having any coffee or stimulating drinks at least 6 hours before bedtime
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark
- Ensure that your bedding and mattress are comfortable
- Set a proper time to get up and go to sleep every day
Minimize the risk of infections
People with COPD are at a higher risk of infections. To minimize these infections, discuss with your doctor any recommended vaccines. For example, the yearly flu vaccine as well as pneumonia vaccine every 5 to 7 years as per your local guidelines. Moreover, make sure to use frequent handwashing to prevent the spread of germs.
COPD can be really difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Not only does it make it difficult for you to breathe and carry out everyday activities but also makes you fall sick more frequently. While there is no permanent cure for this disease, it is always a good idea to be in close communication with a doctor and follow the tips mentioned above to keep symptoms under control. With proper medical and lifestyle management, it is possible to live normally and happily even with COPD.