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Breathe easier: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

by Susan E. Lanza

Our lungs work hard for us for decades and keep us moving through life. Smoking, pollution and respiratory diseases threaten the health of our lungs and can lead to a condition called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD for short. Check out your knowledge on this disease.

COPD Defined

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a long name for a common condition that impacts almost ten percent of all United States adults aged fifty-five to eighty-five. The disease is one of partial airflow obstruction to and from the lungs which occurs consistently over time. Some of the airflow issues can be reversed through certain therapies, but unfortunately COPD is serious, as about half of all those diagnosed die within ten years of a diagnosis.

One fact that you may not know is that chronic obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the umbrella term for two other conditions: chronic obstructive bronchitis and emphysema.

  • Chronic obstructive bronchitis is a persistent situation where repeated bouts of bronchitis lead to the airways not functioning effectively. Fortunately, the obstruction issues happen in only a small portion of people who have chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema is a serious lung condition where certain lung function such as elasticity is actually destroyed, causing major permanent airflow problems.

Causes and Symptoms of COPD

Regular exposure to toxins that inflame the lungs are the primary cause of COPD. Cigarette smoking is the number one culprit for irritating the lungs, either with first hand or second hand smoke. Other toxins that can damage lungs include poor air quality, pollution or exposure to inhaled irritants such as those present at a construction site.

Since COPD symptoms take years to develop, the condition is commonly seen in seniors. Two typical symptoms that present in this disease are a cough that produces sputum, and shortness of breath. Other telling signs of the condition might include a visible rounding of the chest area, wheezing and use of neck muscles or pursed lips when breathing.

Certain life circumstances, like low body weight or a history of childhood respiratory diseases may increase the risk of developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Symptoms may vary slightly per person, but a diagnosis can only be given after a visit to a physician that includes a physical exam, detailed history, chest x-ray and lung tests to check functioning.

For older COPD patients, especially where smoking was a factor, it would be more common to see long hospitalizations if symptoms flare up. Due to some of the limiting aspects of the disease for quality of life and the need for care, eventual placement in an extended care facility could be needed.

Treatment Options for COPD

Despite the fact that COPD is an ongoing situation, there are treatment suggestions that may ease the symptoms a bit. A physician may prescribe a combination of options including:

  • an inhaler that relaxes lung muscles to make breathing easier
  • steroids that can reduce swelling in lung tissues
  • oxygen treatment that can help get needed oxygen into the bloodstream

Another factor in the treatment regime of COPD would likely be attention to the possibility of the patient developing depression. With the diagnosis of any chronic disease that can restrict the quality aspects of life, depression can likely follow. Maintaining a healthy diet to prevent weight gain (which will force the body to work harder) is critical.

A progressive treatment option for some patients is pulmonary rehabilitation. This method is administered by a team of professionals such as a physical therapist, nurses, physicians and respiratory therapists, who work with a COPD client on special exercises, education on the condition and critical psychosocial components of the disease process. Pulmonary rehabilitation is especially helpful to elderly COPD patients because the program helps reduce the lack of mobility, social withdrawal and anxiety that may come along as part of the course of the disease.

No matter how aggressive any drug option or pulmonary rehabilitation program may be, the disease is chronic and cannot be cured. In fact, COPD is ranked as the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Often death in COPD patients comes from pneumonia, cardiac diseases, lung cancer or acute respiratory failure.

Health care professionals suggest having end-of-life discussions as early in the disease process as possible to avoid problems if a sudden hospitalization occurs. The entire health care team needs to be aware of how the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease client wishes to handle any life or death situation that may arise.

As with any persistent disease such as COPD, planning ahead is the key for optimal outcomes. One important point to remember is that mild COPD in persons over age sixty-five is not associated with a decreased life span. If you or a loved one does receive a diagnosis of COPD, it is vital that you determine the stage of the disease and the most effective way to enjoy a healthy quality of life. With these facts, you and your loved ones can breathe easier.