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COPD: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatments

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a composition of various infections that block the lungs preventing the flow of air in and out the lungs. The elasticity of the bronchi and the air sacs are responsible for helping the lungs to push out air during exhalation. When the lungs are infected with COPD, the elasticity of the bronchi is lost therefore some air remains trapped in the lungs when a person exhales.

COPD can affect anyone but it is most common to smokers. It is a chronic condition and can lead to many complications including depression caused by difficulty in breathing, there is also a high risk of experiencing lung cancer. The difficulty in breathing can also result in heart problems, other respiratory infections and can also result in high blood pressure in lung arteries.

The two main diseases associated with COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis which when combined; interfere with the flow of air in the lungs. Emphysema is a lung disease that destroys the walls and fibers of the alveoli. The air sacs collapse when a person with emphysema exhales leading to the blockage of air in the lungs. Chronic bronchitis is characterized by the inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes. In this case, the lungs also produce an excess of mucus which continues to block the narrowed bronchial tubes. A person with chronic bronchitis tends to often develop a chronic cough to try and clear the air passage. The diagnosis of chronic bronchitis is made with a clinical presentation of a chronic cough, productive of sputum for at least three months per year for at least two consecutive years. A combination of these diseases is therefore dangerous and very painful to the patient. OCPD can be treated and managed.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is associated with various signs and symptoms and some of them are chest tightness, wheezing and general body weakness of the patient. OCPD has a long incubation period when the infection is developing and the symptoms and diagnoses are mostly made with those patients in their 4th decade. OCPD is associated with four stages of development from stage I to stage IV, which is mostly known as the end stage and is worse than the previous stages. Various doctors are usually involved in the treatment of OCPD from lung surgeons to pulmonologists, depending on the stage of the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

Causes of COPD:

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease has various causes that include the following.

  • The main cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. Both the firsthand and secondhand smokers are at high risks of being affected by COPD.
  • Constant exposure to a long duration of industrial air pollutants and the burning of coal and wood also increases the victim's chances of being affected by the disease.
  • Chronic infections that are associated with the lungs, bronchi or the pulmonary system also expose a high risk of suffering from COPD. Genetic factors can also lead to the occurrence of COPD.
  • Other irritants like fumes, smoke, and polluted air can cause COPD.

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Risk Factors Related to COPD:

COPD can affect anyone. However, there are some people who are likely to suffer from the condition than others. The following group of people has high chances of suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease than any other person.

  • Tobacco smokers are at the highest risk of suffering from COPD. Both the firsthand smokers and secondhand smokers are at risk.
  • Those exposed to high level of air pollution, especially pollution from burning of coal and charcoal, can be easily affected by the disease.
  • People suffering from pulmonary infections and airway hyper-responsiveness, for example, asthmatic people are also at great risk.
  • People with genetic conditions, or coming from families with histories of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency have chances of being affected. However, these chances are slim and some might not actually suffer from the condition.
  • People with a deficiency in their immune systems are also likely to suffer from the condition.
  • People suffering from emphysema are likely to develop the condition as it is one of the diseases associated with COPD.
  • Those dealing with chronic bronchitis are also at high risk because it is also one of the causative factors of COPD.
  • Those with various infections like vacuities syndrome and constant drug use are also likely to be affected.
  • People with genetic problems like Salla disease and connective tissue disorders are also at risk of suffering from the condition.
  • People exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and also those eating in rooms that are not well ventilated can easily suffer from the condition.
  • Those people who are at the ages from 40 years and above are likely to show signs and symptoms of COPD since the symptoms develop gradually after some time and appear later in life.

Symptoms of COPD:

The early stages of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease do not usually show significant signs and symptoms that can be used to separate the first stage from the last and to clearly determine the disease. Patients with the condition have however complained of the following signs and symptoms before being diagnosed by the disease.

  • The first common symptom of COPD is running out of breath. A person experiences shortness of breath even when performing simple tasks like moving around the house or just exchanging seats.
  • The patients also complain of a productive cough with colorless sputum that does not go away even after the administration of antibiotics or other drugs. After some time, the cough is usually accompanied by a wheezing sound when breathing especially at night when sleeping.
  • Mild chest discomfort and complaints of chest tightness.
  • The excess mucus in the lungs makes a person to constantly clear their throats mostly in the morning to remove the excess mucus.
  • General body weakness due to lack of energy to do most things.
  • Cyanosis which makes the lips and the fingernails to be blue.
  • The later stages are usually associated with extreme weight loss in a short period of time which may even cause the patient to be depressed or stressed.
  • There are also cases of swollen knees, ankles, feet and legs.
  • The later stages of the disease are usually characterized by severe symptoms that include abnormal sounds of the lungs, an expiration process that takes much time than is normal, chronic wheezing and hyperinflation.

People suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease have days when their conditions become worse and worse each passing day. This is known as exacerbation and is experienced for several days. It is usually accompanied by extreme pain and difficulty in breathing.

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Diagnosis of COPD:

There is no single way in which Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease can be diagnosed. A number of physical examinations and test can, however, be carried out to diagnose the disease.

  • When you visit the doctor , a physical exam will be conducted on you. The examination will include the use of a stethoscope to determine the rate at which the lungs are beating.
  • After the physical exam, the doctor might carry out a spirometry test to determine how the lungs are functioning. A tube is connected to the spirometer and a patient takes a deep breath then blows into the tube. The tube is then observed on how it reacts to your breathing and whether the lungs are functioning in a normal way as they should. This helps in measuring the ratio of forced expiratory (exhaled) volume in one second over forced vital capacity. If the ratio is less than 70%, it suggests a mild disease, if it's reduced to 50 or less percentage then it suggests a severe disease.
  • A doctor may also carry out imaging tests consisting of x-rays or CT scan to provide a clear detailed image of the lungs showing its condition. The conditions of the heart and the blood vessels are also observed since these are the organs that are usually affected by the disease.
  • The disease may also be diagnosed by taking a sample of the patient’s artery to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood. This test is also known as arterial blood gas test.
  • When a patient is being diagnosed for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, their breathing history is taken, their history of exposure to any pollutants and tobacco smoke are also specified as these are the causative agents of COPD.

During the diagnosis, other doctors, for example, a pulmonologist may also be involved to help determine the stage of the disease. This is done through the determination of FEV1 level.

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Differential Diagnosis for COPD:

During the differential diagnosis of COPD, chronic asthma is considered since they have similar characteristics. They both have wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and chronic coughing. However, chronic asthma is singled out and separated from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease through the response to normal diffusion and bronchodilator on pulmonary function tests.

Congestive Heart Failure is also considered during the diagnosis of OCPD. They are both characterized by a persistent cough, wheezing, general body weakness and swelling in the legs, feet, and ankles. It is however differentiated from OCPD by the presence of a comet-tail sign on bedside lung ultrasonography.

Treatment of COPD:

In the case of a patient diagnosed by COPD through the effects of smoking, the best action to take towards healing is the stoppage of smoking. Passive smokers should also try and avoid situations that will make them inhale the tobacco smoke from active smokers.

The doctors then advice onset of medical treatment depending on the stage of development the patient's COPD is in. The medical treatment of COPD includes having a nicotine replacement therapy, administering smoking cessation medicines, and use of bronchodilators to open up the air tubes enabling free movement of air in and out of the lungs without any pain.

COPD exacerbation can also be treated through hospitalization to enable treatment of the symptoms, monitor the response of the patient to the administered drugs and prevent further damages.

If the COPD is severe and has extended to other organs or is posing a fatal threat, then a surgical operation can be performed. The various operations that can be undertaken to treat COPD include a bullectomy surgery, lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplant surgery if need be.

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Myths Related to COPD:

Several myths are associated with the development of OCPD. Some of those myths include the following.

Myth #1: All smokers end up developing COPD

This myth is not true. Research has indicated that only 20% to 30% of active smokers actually develop COPD. Most smokers develop less serious lung complications and only a small number of those complications lead to the diagnosis of COPD.

Myth #2: COPD is Fatal

COPD is a chronic pulmonary disease but it can be cured through medical treatment which includes the administration of various recommended drugs and surgery in severe cases. Patients go back to their normal lives after treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1) Can Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease be Prevented?

Ans: Genetic or immune-based COPD cannot be prevented. However, COPD developed from smoking or other environmental agents can be prevented through observation of the following recommendations.

a) Not completely smoking. Passive smokers may also stay away from places where people constantly smoke.

b) People should also avoid pollution of air through the burning of charcoal or coal. Other clean sources of fuel should be implemented in a risk-free environment.

c) One should also stay away from industries or companies that produce dangerous and hazardous fumes. Industries should regulate and control the amount of wastage released to the environment by implementing safe and clean waste disposal methods.

d) It is advisable that one should be aware of their family’s history in order to decrease the chances of being affected by OCPD and prevent it altogether.

e) Constant medical check-ups can also be important in preventing the development of COPD.

2) What is the life expectancy of a person diagnosed with OCPD?

Ans: This usually depends on the stage of the illness. People diagnosed in the early stages usually go back to their normal lives and have a normal life expectancy. However, this decreases as the stages progress.

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Last updated on : 24-12-2018

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