COPD and the Facts About Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

James Ferguson, MD
Facts about COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known by its acronym COPD, is a group of lung conditions that makes breathing difficult. The two most common conditions associated with COPD are emphysema (damage to the small passages in the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the lining of the airways within the lungs). The two often occur together in patients with COPD.

Signs and symptoms of COPD

The signs and symptoms of COPD increase over time and may not appear until after extensive lung damage has already occurred. Some of the symptoms of COPD include:

  • shortness of breath; difficulty taking a deep breath
  • wheezing
  • chronic cough, often with mucus
  • frequent colds or respiratory infections

Causes of and risk factors for COPD

There are currently 16 million American adults living with COPD. It is caused by cigarette smoking and exposure to other irritants and particles over a long period of time.

Studies have found women are more likely to develop COPD than men; however, they are less likely to be given the diagnosis, even with the same degree of lung function impairment. While the reasons are unknown, experts believe women may be at an increased risk of COPD from lower tobacco exposure than men. One study found female smokers up to 50% more likely to develop COPD than their male smoker counterparts. More information is available here.

Questions to ask your doctor about COPD

While COPD is treatable, there is currently no cure. For someone living with COPD, there are some questions that you should consider asking your doctor to help better manage your condition.

  • How was the diagnosis of COPD made?  This question is important because patients can often be given a diagnosis of "COPD" when they have chronic cough and shortness of breath along with a history of smoking. Unfortunately, symptoms of cough and shortness of breath are not always related to COPD. There are other lung or heart conditions which may explain your symptoms and require different treatment. Your discussion with your doctor should include the possibility of having lung function tests performed. This testing could confirm diagnosis or point to alternative reason for your symptoms. It may also help to determine what type of medicines may work best for you.
  • Am I taking my medications properly? It is crucial to get the most out of your COPD treatments. Often inhaler treatments can be expensive, and you will want to make certain the medication is getting into your body properly. Verifying proper technique may limit unnecessary escalation of therapy.  Be sure to always bring your medications with you to your doctor’s visit to ensure you can demonstrate proper inhaler technique.
  • Are there vaccinations I should receive now that I have COPD? While vaccines are important for everyone, respiratory viral and bacterial infections can have more serious consequences for patients with chronic lung disease such as COPD. Be sure to discuss with your doctor if you are up to date with your pneumonia vaccines and get a yearly flu shot.

Ways to better manage your COPD

Pulmonary rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation for COPD is essentially a supervised exercise and education program that teaches how to manage symptoms. Pulmonary rehabilitation, which may be covered by insurance, can provide a supportive, safe environment to train a patient’s muscles to use oxygen efficiently. This can lighten the work required on your heart and lungs and can often improve the functional status and quality of life for patients with COPD. In general, pulmonary rehabilitations are between eight and 12 weeks long, meeting several times per week. The program includes individualized exercise routines as well as group educational sessions on topics such as nutrition, medication administration, mindfulness and breathing techniques, and smoking cessation counseling.

Breathing techniques

For patients with COPD, it is helpful to learn breathing techniques and how to use a mucus clearance device. Holding a deep breath prior to a cough or use of handheld mucus clearance device "flutter" valve may help your cough be more effective. Also, learning the techniques known as diaphragmatic breathing and pursed lip breathing may help you move air in and out and reduce shortness of breath. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, follow these steps or watch this video.  You are encouraged to practice this breathing technique in five- to 10-minute increments several times a day.

  1. Sit comfortably, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head and neck relaxed.
  2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
  4. Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.

Adopt healthier habits.

The importance of smoking cessation and maintaining a healthy weight cannot be overemphasized. The best COPD medications science has to offer will be set up to fail if a patient continues to smoke. Likewise, weight loss can make a dramatic improvement in your symptoms.

For more information on pulmonary medicine and how we can help, visit our website.

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