Community Hospital – Fairfax

COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD is a serious lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. In people who have COPD, the airwaves that carry the air in and out of the lungs are partially block, which makes it difficult to empty air out of the lungs. COPD is a term that is used to include bronchitis, emphysema or a combination of both conditions.

What is Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a condition of increased swelling and mucus phlegm or sputum production in the breathing tube airways. Airway obstruction occurs in chronic bronchitis because the swelling and extra mucus causes the inside of the the breathing tubes to be smaller than normal. This diagnosis of chronic bronchitis is made based on the symptoms of a cough that produces mucus pr phlegm on most days for three months for two or more years, after other causes for the cough have been excluded.

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a condition that involves damage to the walls of the air sacks (alveoli) of the lungs. Normally, there are more than a million alveoli in the lungs. The alveoli are normally stretchy and springy like little balloons. Like balloons, it takes effort to blow up normal alveoli. However, it takes no energy to empty the alveoli because they spring back to their original size.

In emphysema, the walls of some of the alveoli have been damaged. When this happens, the alveoli lose their stretchiness and trap air. Since it is difficult to push all of the air out of the lungs, the lungs do not empty efficiently and therefore contain more air than normal. This is called air trapping and causes hyperventilation in the lungs. The combination of constantly having extra air in the lungs are the extra effort needed to breathe results in a person feeling short of breath. Airway obstruction occurs in emphysema because the alveoli that normally support the airways open cannot do so during inhalation or exhalation. Without their support, the breathing tubes collapse causing obstruction to the flow of air.

What causes COPD?

COPD can be caused by many factors. Although the most common cause is cigarette smoke, environmental factors and genetics also cause COPD. For example, heavy exposure to certain dusts at work chemical and indoor or outdoor air pollution can contribute to COPD. The reason why some smokers never develop COPD is not fully understood. Heredity and genetic factors probably play a role in who develops COPD

How is COPD treated?

The first and most important treatment in smokers is to stop smoking. Medications are usually prescribed to widen the airways. Bronchilators reduce swelling in the airways. Anti inflammatory drugs such as steriods and/or  antibiotics treat infection. COPD can also cause the oxygen level in the blood to be low. If this occurs, supplemental exygen will be prescribed. To control symptoms of COPD, your breathing medications must be taken every day, usually for life. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs offer supervised exercised and education for those with breathing problems. Support groups are also available for COPD patients for education and opportunities to share experience with other patients and families.

Will COPD ever go away?

The term chonic in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease means that is lasts for a long time. While symptoms may vary from time to time, the lungs can still have disease therfore COPD is for life. Symptoms can improve after a person stops smoking and takes medication regularly. Symptoms can further improve after attending pulmonary rehabilitation. Shortness of breath and fatigue may never go away entirely, however, patients can learn to manage their condition and continue to lead a fulfilling life.