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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a progressive disease of the lungs that cannot be cured. There are two categories of COPD - emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In emphysema, the air sacs (alveoli) become damaged and lose their elasticity. As a result, they can no longer absorb and supply oxygen to the blood effectively. The airways (bronchial tubes) also lose their elasticity and become floppy. This can cause them to collapse when you exhale, trapping air and making it difficult to take your next breath in. In chronic bronchitis, your lungs produce excessive amounts of sticky mucus and the airways become swollen (inflamed). This can make you cough frequently, and breathing becomes difficult. Most people have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis but the severity varies from person to person.

What causes COPD?

In the U.S., cigarette smoke is the leading cause of COPD. Although there is no cure for COPD, quitting smoking can slow the progression of the disease. For more information on how to quit, click here. COPD also can develop after long-term exposure to second-hand smoke, as well as irritants found in chemical fumes and dust. Although rare, a small percentage of people may develop COPD from a genetic disorder known as alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency. A simple test is available to screen patients for AAT. Speak with your doctor for more information.

COPD Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath, especially with activity
  • Frequent coughing with or without mucus
  • Increased mucus production
  • Wheezing (whistling noise when you breathe)
  • Not being able to take a deep breath
  • Chest tightness

Preventing COPD Flare-ups

A COPD flare-up (exacerbation) may happen suddenly. It’s important to identify what causes your symptoms to worsen so you can avoid those things and slow the progression of your disease. If you smoke, quit. You also should avoid second-hand smoke, as well as other air pollutants, chemical fumes and dust. Avoid people who are sick. Get your annual flu vaccine and speak with your doctor about getting a pneumonia vaccine. Good nutrition and exercise also are key to staying healthy. Recognize early warning signs of a flare-up. If you have increased shortness of breath, see a change in mucus (color, amount, thickness), you feel more tired than usual, have a fever, chills or muscle aches, contact your doctor right away.

Education can help you learn skills to better manage your COPD. Understanding the disease, medications, oxygen therapy, breathing techniques, and the importance exercise and proper nutrition all can lead to improved quality of life. For more information, contact the Ellis COPD Care Education Program at 518.347.LUNG (5864).

Lung Function Tests

Your doctor may send you for a simple breathing test, known as spirometry, to help determine if you have COPD. The test is often done in your doctor’s office or an outpatient clinic. Lung volumes, diffusing capacity, and a six-minute walk test are other breathing tests that may be ordered. Spirometry measures how much and how fast you can move air into and out of your lungs. Lung volume testing measures how much air your lungs hold and how much of that you can exhale, including the amount of air that remains after you breathe out completely. Diffusing capacity measures how well your lungs transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide between the lungs and your blood. A six-minute walk test measures how well you tolerate physical activity and if you may benefit from oxygen therapy. These tests will show how well your lungs are working and will help your doctor determine the best course of treatment.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Your doctor may recommend pulmonary rehabilitation to help you get stronger and to learn the skills needed to manage your disease in all aspects of daily life. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a structured education and exercise program, typically offered at a hospital or outpatient clinic, that is staffed by doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists. The team also may include dieticians and counselors to address issues around nutrition and to provide emotional support. Although most programs are offered in a group setting, staff work with you to develop an individualized plan to help meet your specific needs. A typical program may consist of 2-3 sessions each week for several weeks. Your health insurance representative can tell you if your plan covers pulmonary rehabilitation services.