Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to two lung diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. A person may suffer from both diseases at the same time or just one. These diseases are characterized by a permanent obstruction of the airways, as opposed to asthma, which causes the airways to narrow at different times during attacks.
The job of the lungs is to supply the body with oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. This gas exchange occurs in the alveoli, which are thousands of tiny sacs located in the bronchi . In people with COPD, the alveoli are damaged or blocked, and this leads to a poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
In cases of chronic bronchitis, inflammation of the airways and heavy mucus secretion block the alveoli. A productive or “wet” cough then develops to expel the mucus. Too much mucus promotes repeated respiratory infections.
When it comes to emphysema, exposure to irritants gradually causes the alveoli to lose their elasticity. This makes it harder to exhale. The air that stays trapped in the lungs contains little oxygen and too much carbon dioxide, which means that the body has less oxygen to use. The main symptom of emphysema is difficulty breathing, or “dyspnea.”
COPD appears in people aged 45 and over, especially people who have smoked for many years. The disease progresses slowly but surely, and symptoms become more severe over time. Damage to the airways is irreversible. COPD can also increase the risk of heart failure, because the heart has to work harder to pump blood through damaged lungs.
The first symptoms often go unnoticed. People tend to dismiss coughing and shortness of breath as normal for smokers. They usually consult a doctor when symptoms have become so severe that they interfere with daily activities.
People with COPD can experience the following symptoms:
At the start of the illness, people usually get these symptoms only when they exert themselves. But as the disease progresses, symptoms appear with less intense exercise until they are present even at rest.
When someone has COPD, they’ll have periods when their symptoms get worse. This can happen due to a bacterial infection . To know when to consult your doctor and when to apply your “action plan”, you need to recognize flare-up symptoms:
Some symptoms require immediate medical attention:
COPD can't be cured, but treatment can slow COPD progression, control symptoms, reduce the risk of new infections, and maintain your quality of life.
Join a respiratory rehabilitation program to help you live better with COPD. Through this program, you'll learn breathing strategies , exercise tips, and other techniques. Find out more from your doctor.
People with COPD are much more prone to lung infections. A simple cold can a have major impact on your health. This is why you need to get the flu shot each fall. The pneumonia vaccine is also recommended. Frequent hand washing is a good habit to help you avoid contracting or spreading germs.
Different types of medications are currently available to treat COPD, and most of these drugs come in the form of various types of inhalers . You need to use the inhaler properly to get the maximum effect from the medication. Don’t hesitate to consult your pharmacist , who can give you advice about inhalers and how to manage the side effects of your medication.
Some people will need to be put on supplemental oxygen. This can be for a short period, for example, during a flare-up (infection), or over the long term for more advanced cases of COPD. A lack of oxygen makes the heart work unnecessarily, increases shortness of breath, decreases quality of life and increases confusion. Oxygen therapy makes up for the lack of oxygen in the blood and improves quality of life.
As with most chronic diseases, COPD can cause sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, or a depressed mood. If you have these symptoms, don’t hesitate to talk about them with a health care professional, such as your doctor, pharmacist, or psychologist. With support, you can overcome these challenges. Support from your family is also key to maintaining your quality of life.