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What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?


Submitted by Terry Masek, SPHR, Metropolitan Medical Laboratory, PLC, Human Resources Officer

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) describes a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to empty the air out of the lungs. The lungs rely on the natural elasticity of the bronchial tubes and air sacs to force air out of your body. COPD causes them to lose their elasticity and partially collapse, which leaves some air trapped in the lungs when you exhale. This difficulty can lead to shortness of breath, chronic coughing and/or the feeling of being tired. Other symptoms include wheezing and tightness in the chest. COPD is an acronym that can be used to describe ailments like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or a combination of the two. COPD is a different condition from asthma, but it can be difficult to distinguish between them.

For reasons that aren’t fully understood, COPD increases the risk of heart disease, including heart attack. Difficulty in breathing can decrease enjoyable activities. And dealing with a serious illness can contribute to the development of depression. You should talk to your doctor if you feel sad or helpless or think that you may be experiencing depression.

COPD is a major cause of disability, and it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States. The American Lung Association estimates that more than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, but another 12 million may have the disease and not even know it. People with COPD may also suffer from colds, the flu, and pneumonia more often than the general population, so pre-emptive flu and pneumonia shots are likely to be helpful for individuals who have this disease.

How do I know if I have COPD?
Cough, sputum (mucus or phlegm) production or shortness of breath that will not go away are all common signs of COPD. These signs and a history of smoking will usually indicate the need for a test called spirometry, which measures airway obstruction. Lung function tests measure how much air is breathed in and out, how fast air is exhaled and how well lungs deliver oxygen to your blood. You can help your health care provider by giving an honest personal history about smoking; by sharing your experiences regarding exposure to pollutants and chemicals; and by providing information, as well as can be remembered, of when the symptoms first started. COPD develops slowly over years, so most people are at least 35 to 40 years of age when symptoms first begin.

What causes COPD?
COPD is not contagious. It can be caused by many factors, although the most common cause is cigarette smoke. The risk increases with the number of years you’ve been smoking and the more packs you’ve smoked. Pipe smokers, cigar smokers, marijuana smokers and people exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke are also at risk. Inhaling irritating particles, such as smoke or air pollutants, can cause the mucus glands that line the bronchial tubes (bronchi) to produce more mucus than normal, and can cause the walls of the bronchi to thicken and swell (inflame). This increase in mucus causes coughing. COPD can develop if small amounts of these irritants are inhaled over a long period of time or if large amounts are inhaled over a short period of time.

Environmental factors and genetics may also trigger the onset of COPD. For example, heavy exposure to certain dusts at work, chemicals, and indoor or outdoor air pollution can contribute to COPD. If you work with any type of chemical fumes, vapors, dust or any other type of lung irritant, talk to your supervisor about the best ways to protect yourself, such as using respiratory protective equipment. If your home is to be painted or sprayed for insects, have it done when you’re able to stay away for a while. Keep your windows closed and stay at home (if possible) when there’s a lot of air pollution or dust outside. Only about 20 percent of smokers develop COPD. The reason why some smokers never develop COPD and why those who have never smoked get COPD is not fully understood. Family genetics likely play a major role in who develops COPD.

How is COPD treated?
If you’re a smoker, the best thing to do to prevent COPD is to stop smoking. Health care providers can offer options for smoking cessation. They may also prescribe medicines that can widen breathing tubes (bronchodilators), reduce swelling in the breathing tubes (anti-inflammatory drugs) or treat infection (antibiotics). Medications have been shown to help stabilize the breathing passages and decrease swelling. In order to help better control COPD, these medications must be taken every day, likely for life.

The term “chronic” in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease means all of the time; therefore, COPD is a condition a sufferer will have for life. While the symptoms sometimes diminish after you stop smoking, they may never go away entirely. Improvements in symptoms depend on how much damage has occurred to the lungs. COPD is a progressive disease, meaning that it’s likely to get worse over time. The combination of treatments and lifestyle changes can help sufferers to feel better, to stay more active and to slow the progress of the disease.

The COPD Foundation is a nonprofit organization created in 2004, with offices in Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida. This Foundation was established to undertake initiatives that result in expanded services for COPD patients and to improve the lives of individuals affected by COPD. The Foundation’s activities focus on achieving these results through research, education, and advocacy programs that will lead to prevention, and someday, a cure for this disease. For further information, call the COPD Information line at 1-866-316-COPD (2673) or go to their website at www.info@copdfoundation.org.

As Metropolitan Medical Laboratory celebrates our 100th year in 2014, your good health continues to be our passion. Metropolitan Medical Laboratory, PLC is one of the largest accredited laboratories in the states of Illinois and Iowa, and has provided this community with quality laboratory services for 100 years. Visit www.metromedlab.com.

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