Leonard Nemoy’s death in 2015 brought COPD to the forefront. It was a condition that many people either hadn’t heard about or had just ignored. It’s one of those diseases that doesn’t have a cure, but there are treatments to help people live their lives as normal as possible. However, changes will need to be made.
If you’ve or someone close to you has been diagnosed with COPD, you’ll need to take steps to manage it. You’ll want to reduce the lifestyle choices that make it worse and improve your life to improve your health.
Then there are the symptoms. The earlier you catch the disease, the more luck you will have in managing it. Here’s all you need to know about COPD to get the help when you need it.
What Exactly Is COPD
COPD stands for the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because of the term “chronic”, it makes it clear that this isn’t something you can cure. But there are treatment options.
This isn’t just one disease but a group of lung diseases that progressively get worse. They include bronchitis and emphysema, but there are other types that can affect a person’s lungs. Often, someone with COPD will at least have chronic bronchitis and emphysema together.
Emphysema will destroy the lung’s air sacs over time, which makes it hard to flow the air out. Meanwhile, bronchitis causes mucus to build up in the lungs, as the bronchial tubes narrow and become inflamed.
The diseases are progressive, which means they get worse over time. It’s important to treat them earlier to help limit the progression and enjoy life. If untreated, the condition will lead to more respiratory infections, heart problems, and other health conditions. It can lead to death, but usually due to complications from COPD, rather than the disease itself.
Looking Out for COPD Symptoms
Most symptoms start of relatively mild and they can go undiagnosed for a few months or years. The earlier symptoms tend to start off as a mild cough that just doesn’t go away, the constant need to clear phlegm from the throat and shortness of breath now and then. The shortness of breath is often after exercise or exerting yourself in an unusual way.
You will usually take steps to avoid the reasons for the discomforts and problems. Many people skip the gym and even start taking the elevator more. This isn’t going to make the condition go away. Over time, the symptoms will still get worse.
The shortness of breath will no longer be mild enough to ignore. It starts to occur just when you’re walking around, rather than after exercise or walking up the stairs. Slowly that struggle will turn into a wheezing or a tightening in the chest.
The coughing can also get worse. What once just felt like a cold that wouldn’t go away turns into a chronic cough. You’ll get it for no reason at all and there may be mucus that joins it. You’ll also find that respiratory infections or just common colds are more recurrent. Your energy levels will also take a dip, as you struggle to get the oxygen into your body.
This is the point that most people will look at booking an appointment with the doctors. It’s harder to live your life normal, and it can lead to disrupting your working day. This is especially the case if you have numerous respiratory infections. Your doctor who treats you for the infections will want to understand why you’re getting so many, which will lead to a discussion of other symptoms.
As the condition gets even worse, you can start to suffer from weight loss unexpectedly or from swelling in the ankles, legs, and feet. The blood flow is restricted, and you can end up with problems in the extremities.
More serious symptoms include struggling to catch your breath, a racing heart, feeling faint, being confused, or having bluish tints to parts of your body. They’re signs that your oxygen levels are dropping considerably and there is a risk of death with these symptoms. If you haven’t already, you should speak to your doctor about your health.
COPD Risk Factors
Researchers have found that around 90% of people with the condition either formerly smoked or currently smoke. This makes smokers the higher risk of developing the disease. In fact, around 20-30% of smokers will eventually develop COPD, along with many other lung conditions. If you currently smoke, you will want to quit right away.
Age is also a factor. Those over the age of 40 tend to be more at risk of developing COPD. This is especially the case if you had a history of smoking, even if you quit decades ago. This isn’t just about cigarette smoke. You can also develop it if you smoked pipes or cigars. Second-hand smoke is also a risk factor for COPD.
Certain lifestyles and medical conditions will also affect your health. If you have asthma and smoke, you’re at a greater risk of developing COPD than someone with asthma who doesn’t smoke or someone without asthma. At the same time, exposure to some fumes or chemicals can also lead to the risk of developing the condition. The bronchial tubes and lungs are affected by breathing in the chemicals and fumes, meaning they’re more likely to inflame.
Poorly ventilated homes have also been linked to the development of COPD. This is especially the case in developing nations. The fumes may have been from heating the home or cooking meals. Either way, the poor ventilation means you’re more likely to breathe in the fumes and affect your lungs.
There are also genetic links. Around 5% of people will have a deficiency in alpha-1-antitrypsin. This is a protein that is needed by the liver. The deficiency can cause the lungs to deteriorate, despite an otherwise healthy life. It’s a condition that is genetic.
Stages of COPD
There are five stages of the disease. Most people will be diagnosed with Stage 2 and beyond. Before this point, the symptoms are either unnoticeable or confused for another condition.
At Stage 0 you’re classed as “at risk.” This is when you’ll start to see symptoms such as coughing and mucus, but you won’t be diagnosed with COPD even if you do go to the doctors. This is the point that your condition is reversible in many cases, if you follow your doctor’s advice. By quitting smoking and changing your diet, you could see the condition disappears or doesn’t get any worst at all.
Stage 1 is the “mild” stage. You may not notice any symptoms at all. The coughing and mucus production can be brushed aside as colds or allergies. Your doctor may not even order some tests, although may prescribe you with an inhaler to help manage the symptoms.
From Stage 2, you’ll be classed as “moderate” and this is when the symptoms start to become more noticeable. You’ll experience shortness of breath and may experience more need to use your inhaler. If you haven’t seen your doctor yet, this will be the time that you consider booking an appointment and other tests will be ordered.
The “severe” stage is Stage 3. Your symptoms will be more frequent, and your doctor will prescribe more treatments. You may start to use corticosteroids to boost the lung health or require oxygen therapy throughout the day.
Stage 4 is the “very severe” stage and you will find it hard to complete your everyday tasks. This is the point that the flare-ups in your symptoms are life-threatening. You may be offered surgical treatments by this point, depending on your overall health.
How Do Doctors Diagnose COPD?
Doctors will initially carry out a physical exam and listen to the symptoms that you have. Your doctor will need to hear all about the symptoms and will also question your lifestyle habits. Be honest about:
- Smoking habits (past and present)
- Family history of COPD
- Asthma or other respiratory problems
- Any medications you take
- Exposure to chemicals and fumes at work or at home
By knowing more about these, your doctor can listen to your breathing through a stethoscope to hear if there is a build-up of fluid. This helps to hear if there are any other irregularities in your breathing habits.
If your doctor believes that COPD could be the problem, your doctor will then order a series of tests. You’ll likely have an X-ray or CT scan to check the chest area for any problems and to see the size of your heart and blood vessels. You may also have an arterial blood gas test, which requires a blood sample to test for oxygen levels in the blood.
A spirometry may also be ordered. This non-invasive test will assess the functioning of your lungs. If you have asthma or have been tested for it, you’ll have already carried out the test. You’ll need to blow into a tube connected to a spirometer. The aim is to breathe out as hard and strong as possible to move the dial on the spirometer as far as possible.
As these tests are used for other medical needs, getting them doesn’t necessarily mean you do have COPD. Your doctor may just want to make sure that you don’t have it or will test for the likes of asthma or heart problems.
How Is COPD Treated?
Since COPD can’t be cured, many people will question how it can be treated. The aim is to slow down the disease’s progression. The first thing you will need to do is make lifestyle changes. Doctors may require this before any severe treatments.
Quit smoking right away if you currently smoke. You will also need to remove yourself from anywhere with second-hand smoke. If someone in the home smokes, request that they either quit completely or smoke outside.
Try to avoid as many chemical fumes as possible. If you work around them, you’ll need to talk to your boss about making changes to your workspace. This could involve using a mask to prevent breathing in the chemicals.
You’ll also want to change your diet and exercise plan. You can still exercise with COPD, but you’ll want to discuss the amount that is safe for you. Your doctor will also help to develop a healthy eating plan, which can help to get more nutrients to support the health of your lungs and heart.
Your weight will have a direct effect on your COPD. Those who are overweight will find it much harder to breathe. There is more pressure on the lungs and the heart, making it harder for the body to pass oxygen around the body. One of the best things you can do is lose weight to help to make the blood flow easier.
It’s also important to reduce fluid retention. Reduce your salt and drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Avoid caffeinated drinks as much as possible, especially if your heart is suffering from problems. Non-caffeinated drinks will help to reduce the mucus buildup within the body, helping to deal with some of the symptoms naturally. The salt will cause water retention, which makes your body work harder.
You may find changing the size of meals you eat will help. While you want to follow a healthy diet, you can still eat too much. Having a full stomach will make the stomach expand. This puts extra pressure on the lungs, as some of their space is taken up. Try switching to six smaller meals throughout the day rather than three meals and snacks. This can instantly help to relieve some of the pressure.
Medications are available to help with some of the symptoms. It’s possible to get some muscles in the airways to relax, reducing the inflammation and making it easier to breathe. You will usually need to use an inhaler, like many with asthma use to open their airways.
Your doctor will also discuss getting vaccines for some conditions. You’re more at risk of developing the flu or getting certain illnesses. Your doctor will likely suggest that you get a tetanus booster to protect against a whooping cough and the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia. The illnesses won’t just be harder to deal with when you’ve already got COPD, but they can make your COPD worse.
In some cases, doctors will recommend getting oxygen therapy. This is important if your blood oxygen levels prove to be low. You may need a mask or the nasal prongs to use throughout the day. It is possible to get portable units, so you can still go out with family and friends. This may not be a permanent need at first but can become one as your condition gets worse.
When other treatments fail, or it looks like you have emphysema, your doctor may recommend surgery. The most common type is a bullectomy, which removes the larger bullae (air sacs) from the lungs. This can help to improve your air flow. If the lung tissue is damaged, a lung volume reduction surgery may be ordered.
Other Health Problems Linked to COPD
Those with COPD are more likely to develop other health problems, especially if the COPD goes untreated. You already know you’re more likely to develop more colds and other respiratory infections. One of those conditions is pneumonia, which is life-threatening. There’s a mucus buildup in the lungs that can cause many health problems.
You’re also more likely to develop high blood pressure and heart problems. Some people develop depression because they are no longer able to do as much as they could. It’s harder to exercise, which means you don’t get the positive health benefits from this.
There is a connection between COPD and lung cancer. In fact, those with COPD are more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer later in life. Smoking is a risk factor for both conditions, whether first hand or second hand. Current estimates state that up to 70% of people with lung cancer also have COPD. Other studies say at least 40% of people with lung cancer have COPD. In some of these cases, people didn’t know they had COPD until they got their lung cancer diagnosis.
However, just because you develop COPD doesn’t mean you will get lung cancer. There are differences between the diseases and managed COPD can find the progression slows considerably.
It Is Possible to Live with COPD
Many people with the disease to find that they live with it. They just must make some changes to their lifestyle. It’s important to take steps to change the risk factors that you can. The most important one is quitting smoking or reducing your exposure to smoke and chemicals. You can also improve your lung strength and health through gentle exercise and a good diet.
The more you work on the lifestyle changes, the less COPD will progress. It may reduce your life expectancy slightly, but it isn’t an instant death sentence.