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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatments

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term used to describe several lung diseases including chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. These diseases cause the airways in your lungs to become narrowed and obstructed by mucus and thickened tissue, leading to difficulty breathing, wheezing, and coughing. This obstruction can be partial or complete depending on the severity of your condition.

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe.

There are two types of COPD: emphysema, which can lead to gasping for air due to the destruction of the cells in the lungs responsible for absorbing oxygen; and chronic bronchitis (also known as chronic obstructive bronchitis), which is an irritation of the tissues lining the lungs.

Symptoms of COPD:

The symptoms of both diseases (emphysema and chronic bronchitis) include wheezing, coughing up phlegm, chest tightness, difficulty breathing out against a forceful inhalation and early morning coughing or hacking.

Risk factors:

The following are risk factors for COPD:

— Smoking. Tobacco smoke causes irreversible damage to lung tissue. The risks of developing COPD increase with the number of years of smoking or other tobacco use.

— Secondhand smoke. Breathing in someone else’s smoke can also cause irreversible damage to lung tissue and put people at a greater risk for developing COPD.

— Exposure to air pollution. Exposure to air pollution over time can lead to scarring in the lungs and impair their ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide efficiently.

— Living with a smoker or being exposed to secondhand smoke regularly as an adult. People who live with smokers are at higher risk for COPD than those who don’t. Adults who were regularly exposed to secondhand smoke when they were children may be more likely to develop COPD when they’re adults than those who weren’t exposed to it.

— Age and gender. Older adults have an increased risk of developing COPD because age-related changes in breathing make them more vulnerable. Women are also at higher risk of developing COPD, especially if they smoke. Women who smoke often get chronic bronchitis earlier in life than men do.

Diagnosis and tests:

While COPD cannot be cured, treatment can make symptoms better. Patients often have chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing.

Doctors diagnose the disease by evaluating the patient’s breathing pattern during exercise testing.

Tests include a chest X-ray to look for lung tissue loss or emphysema on a CT scan to see if there is fluid build up in the lungs or bronchitis. Other tests might include pulmonary function tests and an arterial blood gas test.

The most common symptom of COPD is chronic cough which often produces phlegm. Other possible symptoms are fatigue, lack of appetite, weight loss and trouble sleeping at night because it is difficult to breathe deeply while lying down.

Treatments for COPD include medication to control inflammation, relieve bronchospasm and open airways as well as assist with respiratory function.

There are three main types of medications: oral steroids, inhaled steroids, beta agonists and long acting beta agonists.

Healthy lifestyle changes:

People with COPD are often encouraged to make small lifestyle changes to reduce the risks of exacerbations. These include getting regular exercise, not smoking or vaping, avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke or pollution, and stopping any substance use like alcohol or illicit drugs.

Another important change for people with COPD is making dietary modifications. This includes eating a well-balanced diet that is rich in protein sources, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The person should also avoid foods high in salt, fat and sugar.

A person with COPD should also try to avoid weight gain as this can put more stress on their lungs. When it comes to medications, doctors may prescribe an inhaler or nebulizer treatment to provide relief from acute symptoms.

They might also recommend taking a long-acting bronchodilator if needed. In addition, they might suggest taking one or two short courses of steroids in order to reduce inflammation and speed up recovery time.

Finally, there are some over-the-counter medications such as cough syrup which can help when taken during periods where coughing is excessive.

Lung transplants:

Transplant recipients can be asked to take life-long medication for the rest of their lives to manage both the side effects of transplant drugs as well as the risk of organ rejection. However, there are often significant benefits in quality of life with a lung transplant.

For example, some patients report that they were able to play with their grandchildren or walk without assistance after surgery.

There is also a survival benefit: one study found that post-transplant survival rates were significantly higher than pre-transplant rates. The average five-year survival rate was 81% post-transplant versus 67% pre-transplant.

In addition, the median length of time on the waiting list before receiving a transplant was 18 months post-transplant versus three years pre-transplant.

Another study reported that 36% of people on the waiting list died before getting a transplant, but only 12% died after receiving a new set of lungs.

Although there are clear health benefits to undergoing a lung transplant, it is important to note that this procedure may not be appropriate for everyone because it carries substantial risks such as difficulty breathing and infection at the site where the new lungs are implanted.


Despite the difficulty that COPD can pose for patients and their loved ones, there are many different avenues for treatment available to both improve quality of life and lengthen lifespan. Empowering yourself with knowledge about COPD is the first step to treating your symptoms properly and living a happier life. The next steps will be discovering which of the treatments best suit you as an individual and determining what you want out of life in order to make sure you achieve your goals while still feeling good.

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