Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term that is used to describe a variety of progressive lung diseases characterized by increasing breathlessness and obstructed airflow from the lungs. Diseases included under the COPD umbrella include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory asthma. The leading cause of COPD is cigarette smoking, but may also be caused by second-hand smoke and long-term exposure to lung irritants including pollution, chemical fumes, and dust. The rarest cause of COPD is a genetic condition alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.
For those who suffer from COPD, one or more of the following limits airflow in or out of the airways:
- Alveoli — air sacs — lose their elasticity
- The walls separating alveoli are destroyed
- The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed
- Increased mucus production
These physiological changes lead to decreased gas exchange and lower pulse oximeter readings — hypoxia. COPD makes it difficult to engage in physical exertion and can make day-to-day activities more challenging.
Quitting or never starting smoking and preventing breathing in harmful fumes may help prevent COPD and improve symptoms. If you already have symptoms of COPD, contact us at Taylor Internal Medicine for your evaluation.
If you have symptoms that are indicative of COPD, your internist may order a chest x-ray, a pulmonary function test (PFT), labs, or other tests to measure your lung function, make a diagnosis, and develop a treatment plan.
Living With COPD
COPD, while a chronic disease that limits your ability to engage in certain activities, is far from a death sentence. Managing your symptoms and learning to live with COPD can help improve your quality of life and help you regain your freedom. Some things that may help you include:
- Quitting smoking. Whether you smoke cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes, or you vape, now is the time to quit, and doing so will improve your breathing and help slow the progression of the disease. Smoking cessation therapy or medical aids may help.
- Breathe clean air. If you are exposed to chemicals or toxic fumes including secondhand smoke, pollution, or chemicals, whether at home, work, or in your leisure time, limit exposure. Change your air filters, get outside more, and if you can’t avoid breathing chemicals, wear protective equipment. Your life depends on it.
- Stay in shape and maintain a healthy body weight. If you suffer from COPD, being underweight or overweight can put more stress on your heart and lungs, forcing them to work harder to supply your body with the oxygen it needs. Maintaining a healthy body weight helps reduce the workload on your heart, and therefore your lungs. Staying in shape helps to exercise your heart and lungs, improving their performance and making them more resilient to exertion.
- Practice breathing. This may seem like a silly suggestion, but practicing breathing techniques can help keep you comfortable during various activities and can help work your lungs. Most people don’t regularly use their full lung capacity with each breath, but practicing can help you optimize lung usage for maximal gas exchange. Talk to your doctor or respiratory therapist about specific breathing exercises and techniques that may help you.
- Work with your medical team. One of the most important things you can do is to be open and honest with your medical team. Giving the whole picture and identifying symptoms can help better monitor your condition and provide better treatment options. Be as compliant as you can with your treatment recommendations and if something is not working for you, discuss other options with your doctor. Your medical team relies on accurate information from you and you are the ambassador of your own health.
At Taylor Internal Medicine, we help patients manage their COPD every day. We can do most of the diagnostic testing, including a chest x-ray and PFT in our clinic. Contact us to schedule your evaluation today!