8 Things you should know about COPD

Lung disease, COPD

Dr Nishith Kumar, MD, Consultant Pulmonologist, Orchid Medical Centre

  1. What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is a group of progressive lung diseases. The most common are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Many people with COPD have both of these conditions.

Emphysema slowly destroys air sacs in your lungs, which interferes with outward air flow. Bronchitis causes inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which allows mucus to build up.

  • What are the symptoms of COPD?

Symptoms may be mild at first, beginning with intermittent coughing and shortness of breath. As it progresses, symptoms can become more constant to where it can become increasingly difficult to breathe, you may experience:

  • shortness of breath, after even mild exercise such as walking up a flight of stairs
  • wheezing, which is a type of higher pitched noisy breathing, especially during exhalations
  • chest tightness
  • chronic cough, with or without mucus
  • need to clear mucus from your lungs every day
  • frequent colds, flu, or other respiratory infections
  • lack of energy
  • What causes COPD?

The single biggest cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. Most people with COPD are at least 40 years old and have at least some history of smoking. The longer and more tobacco products you smoke, the greater your risk of COPD is. In addition to cigarette smoke, cigar smoke, pipe smoke, and secondhand smoke can cause COPD.

You can also develop COPD if you’re exposed to chemicals and fumes in the workplace or from burning fuels used for cooking. Long-term exposure to air pollution and inhaling dust can also cause COPD. COPD isn’t contagious.

  • Diagnosing COPD

There’s no single test for COPD. Diagnosis is based on symptoms, a physical exam, and diagnostic test results.

When you visit the doctor, be sure to mention all of your symptoms. Tell your doctor if:

  • you’re a smoker or have smoked in the past
  • you’re exposed to lung irritants on the job
  • you’re exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke
  • you have a family history of COPD
  • you have asthma or other respiratory conditions
  • you take over-the-counter or prescription medications

During the physical exam, your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs as you breathe. Based on all this information, your doctor may order some of these tests to get a more complete picture:

  • Spirometry is a noninvasive test to assess lung function. During the test, you’ll take a deep breath and then blow into a tube connected to the spirometer.
  • Imaging tests include a chest X-ray or CT scan. These images can provide a detailed look at your lungs, blood vessels, and heart.
  • An arterial blood gas test involves taking a blood sample from an artery to measure your blood oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other important levels.
  • These tests can help determine if you have COPD or a different condition, such as asthma, a restrictive lung disease, or heart failure.
  • Treatment for COPD

Treatment can ease symptoms, prevent complications, and generally slow disease progression. Your healthcare team may include a lung specialist (pulmonologist) and physical and respiratory therapists.

Medication

Bronchodilators are medications that help relax the muscles of the airways, widening the airways so you can breathe easier. They’re usually taken through an inhaler or a nebulizer. Glucocorticosteroids can be added to reduce inflammation in the airways.

To lower risk of other respiratory infections, ask your doctor if you should get a yearly flu shot, pneumococcal vaccine, and a tetanus booster that includes protection from pertussis (whooping cough).

  • Lifestyle changes

Certain lifestyle changes may also help alleviate your symptoms or provide relief.

  • If you smoke, quit. Your doctor can recommend appropriate products or support services.
  • Whenever possible, avoid secondhand smoke and chemical fumes.
  • Get the nutrition your body needs. Work with your doctor or dietician to create a healthy eating plan.
  • Talk to your doctor about how much exercise is safe for you.
  • Diet recommendations for people with COPD

There’s no specific diet for COPD, but a healthy diet is important for maintaining overall health. The stronger you are, the more able you’ll be to prevent complications and other health problems.

Choose a variety of nutritious foods from these groups:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • grains
  • protein
  • dairy

Go easy on the salt. It causes the body to retain water, which can strain breathing.

Maintaining a healthy weight is important. It takes more energy to breathe when you have COPD, so you might need to take in more calories. But if you’re overweight, your lungs and heart may have to work harder.

If you’re underweight or frail, even basic body maintenance can become difficult. Overall, having COPD weakens your immune system and decreases your ability to fight off infection.

  • Living with COPD

COPD requires lifelong disease management. That means following the advice of your healthcare team and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits.

  • Since your lungs are weakened, you’ll want to avoid anything that might overtax them or cause a flare-up.
  • Number one on the list of things to avoid is smoking. If you’re having trouble quitting, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs. Try to avoid secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, air pollution, and dust.
  • A little exercise each day can help you stay strong. Talk to your doctor about how much exercise is good for you.
  • Eat a diet of nutritious foods. Avoid highly processed foods that are loaded with calories and salt but lack nutrients.
  • If you have other chronic diseases along with COPD, it’s important to manage those as well, particularly diabetes mellitus and heart disease.
  • Clear the clutter and streamline your home so that it takes less energy to clean and do other household tasks. If you have advanced COPD, get help with daily chores.
  • Be prepared for flare-ups. Carry your emergency contact information with you and post it on your refrigerator. Include information about what medications you take, as well as the doses. Program emergency numbers into your phone.

It can be a relief to talk to others who understand. Consider joining a support group. The COPD Foundation provides a comprehensive list of organizations and resources for people living with COPD.