You may have heard the term “COPD” on television or in ads. You may have noticed the commercials comparing breathing difficulty to the likes of an elephant sitting on your chest. If you struggle from shortness of breath your physician may have already mentioned COPD to you. But what exactly is it? And what does it mean?
COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Chronic means long lasting and continual. Obstructive refers to an airway obstruction. Pulmonary is in regards to your lungs. There are approximately 50 million people worldwide currently diagnosed, and another estimated 50 million who have not received a formal diagnosis. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the world, leading to more deaths each year than Diabetes and Breast cancer combined.
There are two “types” of lung disease: The first is called restrictive (hundreds of these that can effect your ability to breathe well) and the second is known as obstructive (There are only a handful of these). Three of the most common obstructive lung diseases are Asthma, Chronic Bronchitis, and Emphysema. If you have received a diagnosis of COPD, you have a combination of at least two of these three diseases. This being the case, you can understand why people diagnosed with COPD suffer from different symptoms and receive different treatments.
One of the biggest issues and early warning signs of COPD, regardless of which components you may have, is shortness of breath (SOB). Shortness of breath has a variety of reasons and can be contributed to a number of causes. Your shortness of breath depends upon which components of the disease you have.
Asthma is a condition in which inflammation and/or excess mucous production are present due to irritants most commonly from your environment. This inflammation and mucous production cause a reduction in the diameter of the airways, making it harder to move air through. It is common for a high pitch sound, or a wheeze, to take place when an asthmatic exhales.
Bronchitis is another common condition that affecting the airways. In bronchitis, there is heavy production of mucous, and most commonly a productive cough (coughing a lot of “stuff” up). Chronic bronchitis is diagnosed if you have experienced bronchitis for a period of time greater than two months, for more than two consecutive years. In other words, it is recurring and lasts a long time. Bronchitis can be caused by exposure to various pollutants,including cigarette smoke, dust, etc. It can also be caused by an infection, either viral or bacterial. You may or may not be put on antibiotics to treat your bronchitis.
Emphysema is a condition in which the damage to the air sacs in your lungs occurs. Usually, it is due to irritants such as smoke, dust, chemicals, etc. It causes the air sac to lose its elasticity, and there is a consequential reduction in surface area that in turn decreases the amount of exposure to the blood vessels the oxygen in your lungs needs to get to. It also causes what is called “air trapping.” This happens because the elasticity in the lungs doesn’t help the air sacs return to their normal size, and they remain a little inflated, like a stretched out balloon. There is also a genetic deficiency that can cause emphysema, and it is estimated that up to 50% of those diagnosed suffer from this Alpha1 Antitrypsin deficiency.
The combination of these diseases leads to a decrease in lung function. A lack of understanding and knowledge of symptoms lead to fewer physician visits, which causes under-diagnosis. Under-diagnosis leads to less aggressive treatment, which leads to a greater decrease in quality of life. This disease is best approached with an aggressive treatment plan including proper medication, lifestyle adjustments, and pulmonary rehabilitation. If you or a loved one suffers from shortness of breath, a recurring, increasing cough, or increasing fatigue, ask your doctor about COPD today.