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COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe because air doesn't flow easily in and out of your lungs.
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two lung problems that are types of COPD.
COPD gets worse over time. You can't undo the damage to your lungs. But you can take steps to prevent more damage and to feel better.
COPD is almost always caused by smoking. In some cases, COPD may be caused by a rare gene change that affects the body's ability to protect the lungs from damage.
When you have COPD, you have a cough that won't go away, and you're often short of breath. You may also cough up mucus. At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse.
To find out if you have COPD, your doctor will do a physical exam, ask questions about your health, and may do blood tests. Your doctor may do a chest X-ray to look at your lungs and have you do breathing tests to find out how well your lungs work.
COPD may be treated with medicines and oxygen to help you breathe easier. Treatment also includes things you can do for yourself. These are things like quitting smoking, eating well, getting vaccines, and staying active. And avoid colds, infections, and other things that may trigger your symptoms.
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COPD is almost always caused by smoking. Most people with COPD have smoked for a long time. And research shows that smoking cigarettes puts you at risk for COPD. Over time, breathing tobacco smoke irritates the airways and damages the lungs.
People who get emphysema in their 30s or 40s may have a disorder that runs in families, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This is a rare condition in which your body may not be able to make enough of a protein (alpha-1 antitrypsin) that helps protect the lungs from damage.
Things that put you at risk for COPD include:
The best way to keep COPD from starting is to not smoke. And if you smoke, the best way to prevent COPD from getting worse is to quit smoking. There are clear benefits to quitting, even after years of smoking. When you stop smoking, you slow down the damage to your lungs.
The main symptoms are:
At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is a called a COPD exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). When this happens, your usual symptoms quickly get worse and stay bad. This can be dangerous. You may have to go to the hospital.
In a COPD attack or flare-up, your usual symptoms suddenly get worse. You have more shortness of breath and wheezing. You have more coughing, with or without mucus. You may cough up more mucus than usual, and it may be a different colour.
COPD gradually gets worse over time. As it gets worse, you may be short of breath even when you do things like get dressed, fix a meal, or eat. People often feel weaker and limit activities. And some people may get lung infections and heart problems.
Shortness of breath gets worse as COPD gets worse.
If you smoke, quitting can slow the rate at which breathing gets more difficult. You can't undo the damage to your lungs. But you may be able to postpone or avoid more serious problems with breathing.
COPD can lead to other health problems. Some of these include:
Call 911 or other emergency services now if:
Call your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if you have been diagnosed with COPD and you:
If your symptoms (cough, mucus, and/or shortness of breath) suddenly get worse and stay worse, you may be having a COPD flare-up, or exacerbation. Quick treatment for a flare-up may help keep you out of the hospital.
Call your doctor soon for an appointment if:
If you have been diagnosed with COPD, talk with your doctor at your next regular appointment about:
To find out if you have COPD, your doctor may:
Your doctor may order other tests, as needed. These may include:
COPD may be treated with medicines and oxygen, along with self-care.
Medicines used to treat COPD include:
Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier. It can help people with very bad COPD and low oxygen levels live longer.
There are things you can do for yourself to help manage your COPD. These include:
A pulmonary rehab program can help you learn to manage your disease. A team of health professionals can provide counselling and teach you how to breathe easier, exercise, and eat well.
Treatment of a COPD flare-up, or attack, depends on how bad the flare-up is. Mild flare-ups may be treated by following your doctor's instructions for using a quick-relief (short-acting) inhaler or oral steroid medicines. More severe flare-ups may involve visits to your doctor's office or clinic. Or you may need to be treated in the hospital. Treatments include:
Treatment may also include:
You can't undo the damage to your lungs from COPD. But you can take steps to prevent more damage and to feel better.
This is the most important thing you can do to slow down the disease and improve your quality of life.
You may think that nothing can help you quit. But there are several treatments shown to be very good at helping people stop smoking. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting.
These things include smoke and air pollution.
Here are some ways you can make breathing easier.
Try to do activities and exercises that build muscle strength and help your heart. If you get out of breath, wait until your breathing is back to normal before you keep going.
Getting enough to eat will help you keep up your strength. If you are losing weight, ask your doctor or dietitian about ways to make it easier to get the calories you need.
Wash your hands often. Get a flu vaccine every year. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines. And ask your doctor about getting the pneumococcal and whooping cough (pertussis) shots.
Treating more than the disease and its symptoms is very important. Here are some things that can help you cope and live better with COPD.
Hear from others
Lung surgery is rarely used to treat COPD. Surgery is never the first treatment choice and is only considered for people who have severe COPD that has not improved with other treatment.
Surgery choices include:
This removes part of one or both lungs. It makes room for the rest of the lung to work better. It is used only for some types of severe emphysema.
This surgery replaces a sick lung with a healthy lung from a person who has just died.
This removes the part of the lung that has been damaged by the formation of large, air-filled sacs called bullae. This surgery is rarely done.
These non-surgical techniques collapse (or close off) diseased parts of the lungs to help the remaining parts work better.
Current as of: November 14, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffClinical Review Board: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKen Y. Yoneda MD - Pulmonology
Current as of: November 14, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Ken Y. Yoneda MD - Pulmonology
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