Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the is one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide and in the United States. Also known as COPD, it is an umbrella term for a number of health conditions of the lungs in the human body. The two most common ones are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Both of these are progressive lung diseases. This means they worsen over time. A person with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may have both at the same time.
In such a case, chronic bronchitis will firstly affect the bronchial tubes and make them shrink. This will allow for the mucus to build up, further leading to severe inflammation.
On the other hand, emphysema will gradually cause the destruction of the air sacs in the lungs of the person. This will cause issues in the outward flow of the air which may make breathing very difficult.
What causes these issues and COPD? The number one cause of these health conditions is smoking tobacco. Secondly, being constantly exposed to different types of chemicals may also cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to develop.
The disease is not easy to diagnose in the early stages as it takes a long time to develop in the first place. The diagnosis of the disease involves several lung function tests, imaging tests, and even blood tests.
Around thirty million people in the United States alone have COPD. Nearly half of these people are not even aware of having the condition.
Currently, there is no treatment for COPD. The disease can only be managed with medication and lifestyle changes to slow down the progression and improve the symptoms. Without the treatment, the COPD progresses faster, increasing the risk for further respiratory and heart complications.
What Are the Signs of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?
Early symptoms of COPD can be hard to notice as they may be taken for the everyday health conditions. The very first sign of the disease is difficulty in breathing. Shortness of breath and light coughing may also follow. But since these signs are mild, they may not cause that many problems at first.
As time passes, these very symptoms worsen and other complications start to appear. The person with COPD may also start having increased sputum production, wheezing, and a feeling of tightness and heavy on the chest area.
In some cases, the person may also have occasional flare-ups of such symptoms. This is also known as having acute exacerbations.
However, the early symptoms can just be passed off as having a sore throat or being sick. The very first signs that will appear are:
- Recurrent but light coughing
- Having to clear up throat more often (almost always after waking up)
- Shortness of breath especially after doing any activity
As these symptoms become more severe, the person will start changing parts of his/her routine. For example, since it becomes difficult to breathe especially after any activity or exercise, the person may start preferring elevators over lifts or may skip exercising more often.
More and more symptoms will appear with the disease progressing. The signs may then be no longer mild and easy to ignore. Some of these are:
- Tightness in the chest
- Feeling drained or lack of energy
- Shortness of breath even after doing mild activities
- Chronic coughing (both with and without mucus)
- Hearing a high pitch noise while exhaling (or wheezing)
- Having to clear the lungs and throat of mucus almost every day
- Recurring respiratory infections, flu, and symptoms of a cold
In addition, in the later stages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the person may also start seeing symptoms such as:
- Weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Swelling in the feet, ankles, and legs
Sometimes, the person at such a stage may experience signs that require hospitalization. These include suddenly feeling completely out of breath and not being able to talk.
Secondly, low oxygen levels in the body – which can be seen by blueish/greyish hues in the lips and nails-, fainting and dizziness, and racing heart also require immediate medical attention.
All of the symptoms mentioned above can be worse if the person continues to smoke or is exposed to secondhand smoke frequently.
What Are the Causes of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?
In most parts of the Western countries, the leading cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is smoking tobacco. According to the statistics, around 90% of the patients of COPD are either smokers or former smokers.
Smokers are at a higher threat of lung-related conditions in general. A total of 20-30% of people who smoke tobacco products develop COPD or lung infections and may also have a reduced lung function in the future.
Since COPD develops considerably slow, the people diagnosed with it have typically crossed the age of 40. The longer a person tends to smoke cigarettes and tobacco, the higher is his/her risk of developing COPD in the future.
It is also possible to get COPD by constant exposure to secondhand smoke. This usually happens because of people smoking indoors.
In addition, people may also have COPD due to constant exposure to chemicals and irritants from factories or industrial areas. Poor air quality and exposure to pollution are some other factors.
On the other hand, the homes in developing countries have little space and little ventilation. Many of them are situated near the industrial dump areas. This, combined with the tobacco smoke, greatly raises the risk of developing COPD.
Lastly, some people have a genetic disposition of COPD. If a person lacks a specific protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin, it may cause complications for lungs as well as the liver. Family history and other genetic factors may also play a role.
People with other lungs diseases such as asthma have bigger chances of having COPD in the future, especially if they smoke or are constantly exposed to secondhand smoke.
How Is the Diagnosis Done?
There is no particular test that can indicate whether a person has COPD or not. Instead, several tests along with a physical examination by a doctor have to be performed.
Early examining can be done by any doctor but it is better to get checked from a lung specialist or a pulmonologist in time.
It is also important for the patient to inform the doctor about the symptoms and details of the issue. For example, make sure to tell the doctor about smoking history, exposure to chemicals/secondhand smoke, current medication, other respiratory conditions, and family history of diseases.
After all such details and a physical examination, the doctor may commonly ask to get the following tests:
Aerial blood gas test – usually performed by taking blood from an artery and checking the carbon dioxide and blood oxygen as well as many other levels.
Spirometry – the patient is typically asked to take a deep breath and then blow into the tube. This tube is connected with a spirometer which helps in examining the functioning of the lungs.
Imaging tests – The doctor may suggest getting a CT scan or X-ray. In many cases, the person may require both as they help in examining the condition of the arteries, blood flow, lungs, and the heart.
Usually, these tests are enough to confirm whether a person has progressive COPD, other lung-related conditions, or is experiencing a potential heart failure.