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COPD causes, symptoms and treatments

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Updated on November 4, 2020

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a chronic illness that impacts the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Often referred to as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, COPD can cause long-term damage and can even result in death.

Roughly 16 million Americans have COPD, and millions more likely have undiagnosed COPD. COPD impacts both men and women. In fact, in 2017 COPD was the third leading cause of death for American women. While COPD does not have a cure, the disease is often preventable and is treatable.

What is COPD?

COPD is an illness that causes lungs to be inflamed and thicken to the point where oxygen flow is restricted. This means that less oxygen gets to the rest of the body, which makes it harder to eliminate carbon dioxide from the body. People with COPD experience shortness of breath and can find it hard to be active.

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are some of the most common conditions that lead to COPD, or that happen at the same time. Chronic bronchitis is when the lining of the bronchial tubes, the parts of the lung that carry air, become inflamed. Emphysema is similar to chronic bronchitis, but instead of the entire bronchial tubes becoming inflamed, the alveoli (the air sac in the bronchial tube that exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide) is destroyed. This damage to the alveoli is usually a result of smoking or exposure to other dangerous gases.

COPD Symptoms

Common COPD symptoms can include:

  • Regular coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble taking deep breaths
  • Tight chest
  • Regular reparatory infections
  • Excessive mucus or phlegm

These COPD symptoms are similar to asthma, but there are some major differences. Primarily, asthma patients have blocked airways but not damaged lungs like COPD patients. If you think you might have COPD, your doctor will likely test you through spirometry. Spirometry tests how well your lungs work by blowing air into a mouthpiece attached to a machine that measures how much and fast you can blow air.

COPD causes

Tobacco smoking is the primary cause of COPD in America. Even so, smoking doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop COPD. Only some chronic smokers get COPD or other lung illnesses. Other similar gas irritations like secondhand smoke, air pollution, and regular exposure to dust or fumes can also cause COPD. Genetic factors and previous respiratory infections can also cause COPD.

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COPD treatment

COPD is treatable, but like most illnesses, the earlier it’s diagnosed and treated, the better. Treatment can be grouped into changes in behavior, therapy, and medications. Changes to behavior often include:

  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid tobacco smoke and air pollutants as much as possible

In addition to behavioral changes, your doctor might prescribe lung therapy, also known as pulmonary rehabilitation. This rehabilitation is a program that focuses on education and exercises to improve breathing. This can include breathing devices like BiPAP machines to help breathing while sleeping, supplemental oxygen devices to help get enough oxygen to your body, and even programs that focus on exercise and nutrition to improve overall health.

COPD medications

There are many types of medications used to treat COPD, and your doctor may prescribe one or a combination of them to best treat your symptoms.

  • Inhalers

    • There are a few different types of inhaled medications that you can take with an inhaler. Bronchodilators, like albuterol and Brovana, relax the muscles in your airway to make it easier to breathe. Steroids, like fluticasone, reduce the inflammation in the lungs. There are also combination inhalers, like Advair, that work to relax the muscles while reducing inflammation.
  • Oral steroids

    • Oral steroids, like prednisone, can be helpful for short bursts if COPD symptoms worsen, but they should not be used for long periods of time as they can have serious side effects.

If you have any of these symptoms, take the time to talk to your doctor about COPD today. The earlier you treat the disease, the better the treatment will be. To save money on the medications mentioned, simply go to Optum Perks and type in your prescription to find coupons for your next trip to the pharmacy.