COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a term that refers to a combination of respiratory conditions that restrict the ability to breathe effectively. Emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthmatic bronchitis are the three main lung conditions that contribute to COPD. According to the Mayo Clinic, COPD ranks as the leading cause of death and illness worldwide. For this reason, it is important to diagnose COPD and begin treatment to manage it before further damage can occur to your airways and lungs. Understanding the causes of COPD and what symptoms to look for will help you in determining if you have COPD so you can seek medical treatment.
What Causes COPD?
COPD occurs when there is damage to the bronchial tubes or air sacs and they can no longer work properly to inhale and exhale. Inflammation may also be present, causing bronchial tubes to narrow, restricting airflow. Mucus can also block the already narrowed bronchial tubes. All of these conditions can cause restricted airflow and make breathing difficult.
Damage to the bronchial tubes, air sacs and lungs can be caused by several factors. The most common cause is long-term smoking. Cigarette smoke, pipe or cigar smoke can all cause damage to the lungs. Secondhand smoke is also a culprit in causing damage. Another cause of COPD can be occupational hazards such as working around chemical fumes, dusts and other irritants that you breathe in over a period of several years. In some cases, severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be the cause of COPD. With GERD, stomach acid backs up into the esophagus and causes damage. In a few rare cases, COPD can be caused by a genetic disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.
Bronchial asthma is sometimes confused with COPD; however, it is only a factor in developing COPD and is not the disease. If bronchial asthma isn’t treated properly with medications and lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking or staying away from irritants, it can eventually lead to lung damage, emphysema and COPD.
Symptoms of COPD
Symptoms usually do not appear until after damage to the lungs has occurred. The symptoms vary depending upon which condition is most prominent. According to the American Lung Association, symptoms of COPD include:
• Chest tightness
• Chronic cough producing mucus
• Shortness of breath during activity
• Recurring respiratory infections
People with COPD may have some or all of these symptoms and the symptoms generally worsen over time. Along with these symptoms, COPD sufferers may experience chronic colds, flu or pneumonia, high blood pressure, depression and may develop heart disease. Because COPD develops gradually, signs of the condition usually do not appear until after age 40. However, in the case of heavy smokers or those with the genetic disorder alpha-1-antitrypsin, symptoms may appear earlier.
If you are having difficulty breathing, it is imperative you visit your doctor for a diagnosis. Even though lung damage cannot be reversed, treatment for COPD can help stop further damage from occurring and medication can help you breathe easier.
Mayo Clinic “COPD”
American Lung Association “COPD Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment”