The disease is progressive, meaning that sufferers will experience a gradual difficulty in breathing. As a result, most people will not recognize they have COPD until they reach their 50s.
Where before COPD would be explained to patients as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, now – as the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States – there has been a movement to more accurately address the disease.
In fact, with a global mortality rate of 3.2 million in 2015, we believe it is important to detail the symptoms and causes of COPD and identify affordable means of treatment.
What are the symptoms of COPD?
As the disease is gradual, what starts off mild can turn severe. An ongoing cough is one such example of a ‘mild’ symptom, especially if it produces a large amount of mucus – otherwise known as a smoker’s cough.
Additional symptoms include:
- Tight chest
- Wheezing when breathing
- Cold or flu-like symptoms
- Shortness of breath during any physical activity or exercise
As the above are often overlooked by the individuals affected, sufferers are not typically diagnosed until they experience:
- Lips or fingernails turning blue or grey
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing when talking
- Slowness or lacking enthusiasm
At this stage, your doctor will ask whether or not you smoke or come into regular contact with lung irritants.
Is there a specific cause of COPD?
The reason doctors ask this question is that the leading cause of COPD is long-term exposure to lung irritants – the most common of which, in the US, is cigarette smoke.
Of course, smoking is not the only cause. As a matter of fact, around 25% of those affected by COPD have never smoked. The cause instead could have originated from second-hand smoke inhalation, air pollution, chemical fumes or dust from workplace environments.
In rare cases, sufferers can be genetically predisposed to develop COPD. Specifically, 1% of those with the disease have a condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.
The protective enzyme inhibitor, alpha-1-antitrypsin, protects the lungs. A deficiency therefore leaves your lungs vulnerable to damage.
How do I get diagnosed?
If your doctor believes you are deficient in alpha-1-antitrypsin or are showing symptoms of COPD, you will be expected to take a breathing test known as a spirometry test.
First, you will be asked to inhale a bronchodilator medication in order to widen your airways. Next, the spirometer will record two separate measurements: the volume of air you can breathe out for a second, and the total amount of air you can breathe out.
Should the result of this exercise be found insufficient, your doctor may wish to perform an X-ray of your chest. This X-ray should register signs of COPD such as hyperinflated lungs, a flatter-looking diaphragm or an elongated-looking heart. It can also identify chest infections and traces of lung cancer.
If all these methods of diagnosis give inconclusive results, you may need blood tests. These can highlight conditions with similar symptoms (caused by a low iron level and a high concentration of red blood cells in your blood, for example) to COPD.
What methods of treatment are there?
There is not a known cure for COPD, but there are methods of treatment which can delay the progression of the condition and enable you to continue with your daily routine.
Your doctor will recommend that you stop smoking if that is proving to be the lead cause of your COPD. However, there are other means of easing your symptoms. These include:
Inhalers and tablets – These make breathing easier for the patient by directing medicine straight to the lungs. Your doctor or nurse will explain the different inhalers available and how to use them. If inhalers do not control your symptoms, doctors may instead recommend tablets or capsules.
Pulmonary rehabilitation – This is a specialized program of exercise that is designed to ease and control the symptoms of COPD by helping to strengthen your breathing and improve general wellbeing. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs are ran by a number of different healthcare professionals. Your doctor should have information concerning local groups.
Surgery – There are three main operations that can be performed on patients unable to control their COPD through other methods. Bullectomy, an operation to remove a pocket of air from one of the lungs, allows for more comfortable breathing. Lung volume reduction removes affected areas of your lung to allow healthier parts to function better. Lastly, a lung transplant can be performed.
Can I live with the condition?
Yes. Through exercise and by maintaining a healthy weight, not only can your quality of life improve, but you will also support the work of your medication. If you are a member of a local pulmonary rehabilitation class, consult with them beforehand about advocated methods of dieting and achievable exercises.
Outside of keeping fit, there are some other tips to help better control your breathing:
Restrict hazardous environments – Prevent the likelihood of flare-ups by minimizing your contact with dust, fumes, smoke and perfumes.
Avoid extreme weather – Plan ahead of any journey or activity with weather forecasts. Ensure you are well stocked with medication and prepared for worst-case scenarios.
Practice breathing – Add breathing exercises to your routine by regularly focusing entirely on breathing deeply and slowly. Alternatively, try breathing through pursed lips (as if whistling) to vary the activity.
Have regular check-ups – Whatever medication you are taking, be sure to check in with your doctor to monitor your condition. It may be that inhalers are not preventing the progression of your illness enough, or that you would benefit more from tablets.
Whichever methods of treatment you utilize, remember to consult your doctor beforehand. Speaking to a professional in the early stages of your diagnosis allows them to recommend relevant medication and exercises.
Our pharmacists are equipped to address any concerns you may have about COPD medication. So, do not leave your symptoms to increase in severity. Instead, speak to us today about your diagnosis and access medication that fights breathlessness and restores normality to your daily routine.