Overview of COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a group of several different lung diseases which block airflow to the lungs. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two of the most common forms of COPD. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the bronchial tubes is inflamed and in emphysema the air sacs at the end of the smallest air passages are slowly destroyed. Although damage is irreversible, symptoms can be treated to minimise damage.

These are COPD symptoms:

  • mucus-producing chronic cough. Mucus is clear, white, green or yellow.
  • clearing throat upon waking because of excess mucus.
  • tight chest.
  • wheezing.
  • weakness.
  • shortness of breath.
  • frequent cold-like infections.
  • blue fingernail beds or lips.
  • in later stages, weight loss.
  • episodes where symptoms worsen for days or longer.

If your doctor suspects you have COPD, they will probably refer you to a pulmonologist, a doctor who specializes in lung diseases. COPD is often misdiagnosed especially among former smokers. Your doctor may recommend the following tests in order to diagnose COPD:

  • Arterial blood gas analysis. This measures how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your blood and remove carbon dioxide.
  • CT Scan. This can detect emphysema and determine if you could benefit from surgery. It can also detect lung cancer which is more common among those with COPD.
  • Chest X-ray. This can detect emphysema and rule out other lung problems or heart failure.
  • Pulmonary function tests. The most common is Spirometry. It can detect COPD before you have symptoms. It measures how much air you can hold in your lungs and how fast you can blow it out. It can also track disease progression and treatment success.

The first step in any successful COPD treatment plan is to stop smoking and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. There are several medications and treatment for COPD:

  • Antibiotics. These are often used to treat respiratory infections which can exacerbate COPD.
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. This drug reduces inflammation and relaxes airways.
  • Theophylline. This is an inexpensive drug that improves breathing.
  • Oral or inhaled steroids. These drugs keep COPD from worsening but can have serious side effects.
  • Bronchodilators. These relax airways and usually come as an inhaler.

For moderate to severe COPD doctors often prescribe oxygen therapy or a pulmonary rehabilitation program. Lung volume reduction surgery may be an option for those with severe emphysema - diseased tissue is removed to allow lungs to function more efficiently. Lung transplants could be an option for some.