- The symptoms of COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, general fatigue, and extra production of mucus and phlegm.
- You should get help from a doctor immediately if you have symptoms like severe sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, blue fingers and lips, or coughing up more than a teaspoon of blood.
- Some of the ways you can treat COPD include using an inhaler, avoiding secondhand smoke, and taking medications like steroids or anti-inflammatory drugs.
- This article was medically reviewed by Osita Onugha, MD, thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic, incurable condition, which is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. People with COPD experience shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing, and unfortunately, the condition worsens over time.
As of 2019, in the United States, an estimated 6.2% of adults over the age of 18 have COPD, and you’re more likely to develop COPD if you smoke. In many cases, COPD is preventable.
Here we discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment of COPD.
What causes COPD?
The most common cause of COPD is tobacco smoke, according to Laren Tan, MD, director of the Loma Linda University Health Comprehensive Program for Obstructive Airway Diseases. Among current smokers, the average prevalence is 15.2%. Tan says other causes of COPD are:
- Second-hand smoke
- Irritants like dust or chemicals (usually due to occupational exposure)
- Genetic abnormalities
Age does not cause COPD, but it is a risk factor. The condition is most common among people over 40. This is because lung function decreases with age. Especially if someone smokes at an older age, their lung function will decrease much more rapidly, Tan says.
What are the symptoms of COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is basically “airway constipation,” says Tan. This is because your airways may become clogged with mucus, or the airway walls may be inflamed.
Additionally, in healthy lungs, air sacs called alveoli have elasticity to them. These air sacs are crucial for bringing oxygen into the body. Inhaling inflates the air sacs, and exhaling deflates them. However, if you have COPD, these air sacs and your airways might be less elastic, which can negatively affect your airflow.
All of these factors make it difficult for COPD patients to fully exhale air out their lungs.
“Not being able to fully exhale all the air in the lungs results in the trapping of air in their lungs, and overtime this trapping of air can result in patients having to work extra hard to fill their already filled lungs with fresh air,” says Tan.
This obstructed airflow can lead to various symptoms such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing during exhalation
- Coughing (may be dry or with phlegm)
- General fatigue
- Extra production of mucus and phlegm in the lungs and airways, which can contribute to chronic coughing
COPD is progressive, which means the disease and its symptoms get worse over time.
Tan says patients should get help immediately if they have the following symptoms:
- Severe sudden shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Blue fingers or lips
- Coughing up more than a teaspoon of blood
How to treat COPD
COPD is not curable. However, there are various treatments for COPD to keep symptoms under control and to allow COPD patients to live their lives fully.
The most common treatments for COPD include:
Quit smoking: If you smoke, the CDC says that quitting smoking is one of the most important parts of COPD treatment. Speak to your doctor about coming up with a plan to safely quit.
Avoid secondhand smoke: As much as possible, you should also avoid secondhand smoke and other irritants like air pollution and dust. These are not as harmful as smoking, but they can still irritate the lungs and exacerbate breathing issues.
Use inhalers: There is not a one size fits all inhaler approach for COPD. Two types of inhalers COPD patients might use:
- Bronchodilators: This is a type of medication that helps open the airways making it easier to breathe.
- Inhaled corticosteroid: This medication is a steroid that helps prevent episodes of flare-ups of worsening COPD symptoms, called exacerbation.
Tan says some people may just use a bronchodilator, but people with more severe cases can benefit from also using an inhaled corticosteroid as well. People who struggle to use an inhaler may also get these medications through a nebulizer.
Take medication: COPD patients who continue to have worsening symptoms despite inhaler use may need to take other medications to find relief. Some examples are:
- Steroids: Oral steroids can be prescribed for a short-term period of time, usually one to two weeks, during an episode of COPD exacerbation. Some examples are Methylprednisolone, Prednisone, and Prednisolone.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs: Tan says anti-inflammatory drugs like Roflumilast, an oral anti-inflammatory drug, can decrease repeated COPD exacerbation.
- Antibiotics: If someone has a respiratory infection such as the flu, bronchitis, or pneumonia, antibiotics should be prescribed to prevent COPD symptoms from getting worse, according to Mayo Clinic.
Try pulmonary rehabilitation: Think of this as personalized physical therapy for your lungs. It is a multidisciplinary program that includes both education and exercise – which usually includes stretching, strengthening exercises, and cardiovascular/aerobic exercises. Tan says these exercises strengthen the lungs and heart, helping the body use oxygen in a better way.
According to the American Lung Association, pulmonary rehabilitation may be so helpful that it can reduce your need for future COPD-related hospital visits.
Try oxygen therapy: For severe cases of COPD, oxygen therapy, or supplemental oxygen, may be needed, especially if your blood oxygen levels are low. The oxygen can be administered through a mask or nasal prongs, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. You need a prescription to get supplemental oxygen, but once you have the prescription you can get treatment in a hospital, doctor’s office, or even at home, Tan says.
In severe cases, oxygen levels can become dangerously low threatening the health of your organs and ultimately your life. Oxygen therapy can help reduce symptoms and protect your overall wellbeing.
COPD is mostly preventable
Many cases of COPD are preventable since smoking tobacco is a huge risk factor. However, even if you don’t smoke, there is a chance you could get COPD. Some things that are more out of your control can contribute to COPD, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, and genetic disorders.
If you are having respiratory symptoms, there are various tests to diagnose COPD:
- Lung function testing with a spirometer: A spirometer is a small device that you blow air into. It measures how well you can exhale air, both how fast you blow it out and the amount of air that you blow out.
- Chest X-Ray: This is done to see if there are any other problems in the lungs, such as emphysema
- Blood tests: An arterial blood gas test can determine your blood oxygen level. You may also have blood tests to see if you have the genetic disorder alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which can cause COPD.
Stay on top of your treatment and you will be on the path to better breathing and better quality of life. It is possible to manage your condition and live the life you want to live with COPD with the right treatment, or combination of treatments.