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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

by Carolyn Rogalsky

The eldercare community should be aware of this progressive lung disease as it is a very common, yet underdiagnosed health problem among seniors.

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is a general term used to describe progressive lung diseases that make it hard for you to breathe. Among the diseases associated with COPD are emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (irreversible) asthma, and severe bronchiectasis. Other names for COPD are Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (COLD) and Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (CLRD).

COPD develops slowly. For this reason, COPD is most often diagnosed in middle-aged or older people. Symptoms often worsen over time and can limit your ability to do routine activities. Severe COPD may prevent you from doing even basic things like walking, cooking, or taking care of yourself.

COPD: What Are the Symptoms?

  • Shortness of breathe
  • Chronic coughing (with or without mucus)
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Decreased blood oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide levels
  • Exercise intolerance

What Causes COPD?

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust, may contribute to COPD. Genetic factors can also cause COPD, although the disease isn't passed from person to person.

When irritants (smoke and other pollution) enter the lungs, the airways (bronchial tubes) can become inflamed and narrow. Over time, the elastic fibers which allow the airways and air sacs to stretch and return back to their normal state are destroyed, which makes breathing more difficult. This decreased air flow ultimately results in less oxygen being delivered to the body's tissues.

How common is COPD?

  • COPD is a major cause of disability, and is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health
  • The National Center for Health Statistics projects that it could be the third leading cause of death in the U.S. by 2020
  • The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) estimates that 12 million adults have COPD, and another 12 million are undiagnosed or developing it
  • COPD kills more women than men each year
  • A person with COPD dies every four minutes in the U.S
  • COPD cost the U.S. economy $32.1 billion, in direct and indirect costs in 2002
  • It is estimated that over 600 million people worldwide have COPD

How is COPD Treated?

If you develop the symptoms of COPD, it's important to talk to your doctor about taking a spirometry test, a simple noninvasive breathing test, which measures the health of your lungs. Although doctors don't yet know how to reverse the damage COPD causes to airways and lungs, there are several treatments and lifestyle changes that can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.

Quitting smoking is the most important step you can take to treat COPD. Talk to your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. Many hospitals have in-house programs that help people quit smoking, or can refer you to one. Ask your family and friends to support you in your efforts to quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.

Other treatments for COPD may include medicines, vaccines, pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab), oxygen therapy, surgery, and managing complications. Before beginning any treatment plan, however, talk to your doctor to find out what medicines and therapies are best for you.