Common Questions About COPD


You just left your doctor’s office where you were told you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Admittedly, those words sound a little scary and while you were trying to take it in, you may not have thought to ask all the questions that are coming to mind now. The truth is that COPD is a serious illness that can cause frequent visits to the doctor, and even the emergency room. In fact, it is ranked the third leading cause of death in the United States. However, the good news for you is that knowledge is power. Now that your doctor has identified the problem, there are things that you can do to keep yourself healthier, breathing easier, and living longer. So, here are the answers to some of the questions that people who have COPD commonly ask.

What is COPD?

The pulmonary system consists of airways and lungs. When you breath, air enters your body through the trachea, then continues through tubes that branch off of the trachea, called bronchi and bronchioles. These tubes deliver air, filled with oxygen, into the different segments of your lungs and finally into small alveolar sacs where the oxygen can pass into your blood. It is here that carbon dioxide will also pass back into the lungs to be exhaled. This process is very important because oxygen is essential for all the cells of the human body to thrive and survive.

When someone has COPD, injury to the pulmonary system has caused inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes and lung tissue, which makes it more difficult for oxygen to get in and carbon dioxide to get out. As the condition worsens, it can become more and more difficult to breath, causing the body to be deprived of oxygen and the level of carbon dioxide to rise in the blood. This, in turn, results in an increased feeling of shortness of breath.

There are different types of COPD and you may have just one type, or a combination of two or more. Chronic bronchitis, which is chronic inflammation of the bronchial tubes, causes a persistent productive cough and can result in scarred and narrowed airways. Emphysema, which is characterized by destruction of the alveolar sacs, interferes with airflow and the exchange of oxygen into the blood stream. Some people with COPD also have asthma, which is an inflammatory condition of the lungs that is triggered by allergies, respiratory infections, or irritants in the environment.  If you have COPD, you should ask your doctor to explain what type you have and what you can do to decrease further damage to your lungs. 

What Causes COPD?

Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, however some people who have never smoked can also develop the disease. Exposure to second hand smoke, environmental dust and chemicals or air pollution can all contribute to the problem. Some people, who have very reactive airways, meaning their lungs are very sensitive and have exaggerated responses to inhaled irritants, can develop COPD. A small percentage of people with COPD can also have gotten it genetically, passed down to them from through their family.

However, usually COPD develops over time through the act of breathing in harmful substances. Utilizing the same process we use to bring oxygen to our cells, irritants like cigarette smoke are carried through the airways to the alveolar sacs. These harmful gasses cause inflammation and damage to both the airways and the lung tissue. Over time, the damage leads to narrowing of the airways and scarring of the lung tissue, making it more difficult to get oxygen to your cells. 

How Does My Doctor Know I Have COPD?

You may have gone to your doctor complaining of some of the more common symptoms of COPD, including a productive cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a general feeling of lack of energy or fatigue. However, in the early stages of COPD, you may have no symptoms at all.

Based on your symptoms, your doctor probably ordered pulmonary function tests (PFTs). These tests consist of a series of measurements to determine how well your lungs are working. During these tests, how fast and strong you can blow air out of your lungs, how much air you can take into your lungs, how much oxygen is getting into your blood, how well you are eliminating carbon dioxide, and how well you tolerate exercise can all be evaluated. If your doctor told you that you have COPD, it was likely based on the results of one or all of these tests.

What is the Treatment? 

There is no cure for COPD, but there are treatments available. The first, and most important element of treatment is up to you – quit smoking, or avoid exposure to smoke or the other toxic substances that may be causing your problems.

There are a number of different types of medications that can help to control the symptoms of COPD. Bronchodilator medications are almost always recommended because they help keep the airways open and may help with secretions. They are usually taken through an inhaler, which is a device that allows you to breathe in the medication. Glucocorticoids (steroids) can also be taken through an inhaler and will decrease inflammation in the lungs and airways. They can also be taken in pill form, especially when someone has a flare (acute worsening of COPD symptoms).  Finally, people with severe COPD may need to use supplemental oxygen, sometimes only at night, but possibly throughout the day and night. This is only needed when someone cannot get enough oxygen in his or her blood through breathing regular air. However, oxygen is explosive so it can never be used near a flame, including during smoking.

In addition to treating the symptoms of COPD, it is important to do everything you can to limit worsening symptoms or flares. Because a respiratory infection can be particularly dangerous to someone with COPD, it is important to avoid exposure and take measures to prevent infection. Washing your hands regularly and keeping your hands away from your face can help prevent transmitting germs from a surface to your lungs. You should also avoid contact with someone who is sick and try to avoid crowds, especially in enclosed spaces, and particularly during cold and flu season. Speaking of flu, it is highly recommended to get a flu vaccine every year, and to get the pneumonia vaccine.

Will I Get Better?

The medications prescribed should improve your symptoms, and if you have a respiratory infection, treatment including antibiotics should help you return to your baseline. However, COPD is a chronic disease and generally worsens over time. This is why it is extremely important to stop smoking, avoid harmful toxins and chemicals, see your doctor regularly, take your medications as prescribed, and do all that you can to avoid respiratory infections. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle including a proper diet and regular exercise, avoiding exposure to smoke, and taking care of any and all medical problems you have is the best way to stay healthy and live longer.

What Should I Do Now? 

Now that you have been diagnosed with COPD, the next steps are up to you. If you are smoking, it is very important that you quit. Chances are that you have tried to quit before, so don’t go this alone. Ask for help. There are many recommendations that your doctor can make for you to improve the likelihood that you will be successful this time.

Make sure that you are up to date on all of your vaccines, including flu and pneumonia, take measures to avoid contracting a respiratory infection and focus on living a healthy lifestyle. Eat a well balanced diet and get regular exercise. Your doctor can advise you on an exercise program, and if you are having trouble tolerating exercise, there are pulmonary rehabilitation programs that can be recommended.

Once you have been diagnosed, it is important that you develop a relationship with a specialist in lung diseases. A pulmonologist is a doctor that has specialized training in treating people with COPD, and he or she is the best professional to help you manage your symptoms and to live a longer and healthier life.

If you have more questions about COPD and its treatment, or if you are looking to find a pulmonologist to help you manage your disease, we would be happy to assist you. Our board-certified pulmonologists at Northwest Pulmonary & Sleep Medicine are committed to helping you achieve your best possible pulmonary health. Call us at 8154777350 to request an appointment at one of our locations in South Barrington or Crystal Lake, Illinois. You can also register an appointment online.

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