Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common chronic respiratory disease characterized by airflow obstruction leading to breathing difficulty. It is primarily caused by long-term smoking and inhaling fumes from burning fuel for cooking or heating in poorly ventilated homes and work environments.
COPD is progressive, meaning symptoms get worse over time, even with treatment. Symptoms include persistent coughing or wheezing, shortness of breath when exerting yourself, and a thick, wet mucus. COPD can affect your quality of life, but specific changes in lifestyle and treatment can slow down the progression of symptoms.
In the early stages of COPD, there are few or no symptoms. However, if you notice you are having trouble with everyday activities like climbing the stairs or getting a breath while walking for groceries, this could be an early sign of COPD. If you are experiencing these signs, make an appointment with your doctor.
Other symptoms include frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia; a dry cough that doesn’t go away; a change in the color or consistency of phlegm; and shortness of breath during rest or exercise. People with severe COPD have episodes called exacerbations, which are times when your symptoms get much worse than usual and last longer. In these episodes, your cough is more severe, you may have more phlegm, and it might be yellow or green. You might also experience a fever, a fast heartbeat, and confusion.
The diagnosis of COPD begins with a physical exam and a review of your health history, including past smoking history. A spirometry lung function test can help your doctor measure how well your lungs are functioning. A chest x-ray and CT scan are also helpful for diagnosing COPD, though a stethoscope might be able to hear your lungs and note that they sound puffy or mucous-filled.
Various tests can be used to confirm a diagnosis of COPD, including arterial blood gases (ABGs), which show how much oxygen is in your blood and your carbon dioxide level. An electrocardiogram (EKG) and a chest CT scan can rule out other conditions causing your symptoms, such as heart disease or a lung infection.
Pulmonary rehabilitation can teach you how to breathe differently so that your lungs can stay as healthy as possible and manage your symptoms. It can also help you learn to avoid situations that worsen your symptoms.
Initially, treatment focuses on changing your lifestyle to reduce exposure to pollutants and secondhand smoke and increase your physical activity levels. Medicines called bronchodilators are sometimes prescribed to relax your airways and help you breathe easier. You can take them orally in liquid form or inhale a mist containing the medicine through a nebulizer inhaler.
If your symptoms worsen, you might need portable oxygen for daily activities. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of this option.