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COPD: The Basics

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third-leading cause of death in the United States and one of the most common lung diseases in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 210 million people across the world are currently suffering from COPD. That estimate includes nearly 12 million Americans living with COPD, while another 12 million may be left undiagnosed.

COPD is a combination of diseases, with most patients suffering from both chronic bronchitis and emphysema, making breathing more and more difficult for them. That is because emphysema destroys the air sacs in the lungs over time, reducing the surface area of the lungs and the amount of oxygen that enters the bloodstream. Further, chronic bronchitis leaves patients with inflamed bronchial tubes and a long-term cough with mucus.

Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, coughing with or without mucus, respiratory infections, tightness of the chest, wheezing and trouble catching one’s breath. However, most COPD patients do not experience symptoms from the disease until their lungs have been severely damaged, making it important for those people who are at risk for the disease to be screened regularly. Spirometry is the most commonly used test for diagnosing COPD, while X-rays, CT scans and lab tests can also be used.

While smoking is the main cause of COPD, inhaling irritants such as chemicals, dust and other fumes are also risk factors. COPD can also affect those who have never smoked or had any contact with harmful pollutants, as there is a genetic risk factor for developing emphysema. The most commonly known genetic risk factor for emphysema is called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, which leaves patients with little to no AAT protein in the bloodstream. This deficiency leaves room for white blood cells to damage the lungs. While AAT deficiency seems to be the main cause of COPD among nonsmokers, researchers believe that there are other genetic factors that may increase the risk of developing the disease.

While currently there is no cure for COPD, there are treatment options to relieve symptoms and keep the disease from progressing. These include medications such as inhalers and steroids, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation and surgery. There are also steps that COPD patients can take on their own to improve their symptoms, including:

  • Practicing controlled breathing and relaxation exercises
  • Exercising regularly to strengthen respiratory muscles
  • Maintaining a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water
  • Avoiding crowds and cold air
  • Getting vaccinated for respiratory infections
  • Quitting smoking and avoiding places where smoking is permitted

While COPD cannot be cured, it can be prevented by avoiding smoking and by breathing clean, fresh air to keep lungs healthy.

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