COPD patient on a Nebuliser breathing apparatus

COPD patient on a Nebuliser breathing apparatus (Representative image)

Photo : iStock

KEY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Breath is the basis of our existence and healthy lungs are primary to breathing activity.
  • Yet, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can creep in stealthily and steal that basic ability.
  • COPD brings with it an increased chance of heart failure and early death.

We often tend to believe that with old age one's lungs become diseased and do not perform as efficiently as they did when one was young. Or that continuous wheezing or breathlessness is okay and will go away when one eats nutritious foods or rests enough. But that is not ALWAYS true. If we pay attention to the factors that determine pulmonary health and strength, we may be able to stall impending damage - unless, of course, some conditions make it a progressive and incurable disease.

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. According to the Mayo Clinic experts, symptoms include:
  1. Breathing difficulty,
  2. Cough,
  3. Mucous (sputum) production and
  4. Wheezing.

What causes COPD?

Those persons who have suffered long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, most often from cigarette smoke etc. In countries where smoke-free cooking setups are not the norm, COPD often occurs in people exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes. The more worrisome part is that the damage does not stop there and since the heart and lung are part of the same setup, people with COPD are at increased risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer and a variety of other conditions.

Risk factors for COPD include:

  1. Exposure to tobacco smoke: The more years one has been smoking (the more packs you smoke), the greater your risk. Pipe smokers, cigar smokers and marijuana smokers as well as those exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke also cannot hope to be spared either.
  2. People with asthma: Asthma, a chronic inflammatory airway disease, may be a risk factor for developing COPD. Smoking coupled with asthmatic conditions is a deadly combination that allows COPD to take root.
  3. Occupational exposure to specks of dust and chemicals: Working in factory environs where suspended particulate matter in form of cement dust, asbestos, cloth fibres, chemical fumes, vapours and specks of dust etc irritate and inflame your lungs, COPD is not too far away. In the developing world, people exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes are at higher risk of developing COPD.
  4. Exposure to air pollution in the home or at work: This is another hazardous trigger for COPD.
  5. Respiratory infections: Diseases involving the breathing tract such as pneumonia, and now SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) can also increase your risk.
  6. Genetics: The uncommon genetic disorder alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is the cause of some cases of COPD. Therefore, stay aware of your family's medical history. Other genetic factors likely make certain smokers more susceptible to the disease.

Is COPD treatable?

While it is a fact that COPD is a progressive disease that gets worse over time, with modern research enabling better management protocol, it is treatable. With proper management, most people with COPD can achieve good symptom control and quality of life, as well as reduced risk of other associated conditions, says Mayo Clinic.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your doctor may also consider the following treatment options:
  1. Medicine: This may be to treat symptoms such as coughing or wheezing.
  2. Pulmonary rehabilitation: A personalised treatment program that teaches you how to manage your COPD symptoms to improve your quality of life. Customised breathing exercises, tips and hacks on how to conserve your energy, and what types of food and exercise are right for you are imparted.
  3. Prevention and treatment of lung infections: Lung infections can cause serious problems in people with COPD. Stay up-to-date on certain types of crucial vaccines such as flu, COVID-19, and pneumonia vaccines. Respiratory infections should be treated with antibiotics, if appropriate.
  4. Supplemental oxygen: A portable oxygen tank may be needed if blood oxygen levels are low. All these will, of course, be decided by your treating doctor.

What happens when COPD advances?

When COPD is unmanaged, it can develop into more complicated health conditions like:

  1. Respiratory infections
  2. Heart problems
  3. Lung cancer
  4. High blood pressure in lung arteries (pulmonary hypertension)
  5. Depression

Signs and symptoms of COPD:

COPD is diagnosed using a simple breathing test called spirometry. Here's a key to managing COPD better. Catch its signs early and see a doctor soon. According to the American Lung Association experts, many people don't recognise the symptoms of COPD until the later stages of the disease. Sometimes people think they are short of breath or less able to go about their normal activities because they are "just getting older."

Remember, shortness of breath can be an important symptom of lung disease - which when left untreated can damage the heart and the vascular system. Be very careful as vital organs are involved. If you experience any of these symptoms or think you might be at risk for COPD, it is important to discuss this with your doctor.

  1. Chronic cough
  2. Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities (dyspnea)
  3. Frequent respiratory infections
  4. The blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
  5. Fatigue
  6. Producing a lot of mucus (also called phlegm or sputum)
  7. Wheezing

The Bottom Line:

Don't wait for symptoms to become severe because valuable treatment time could be lost. Early detection of COPD is key to successful treatment. According to the UK health body NHS, while there's currently no cure for COPD, the sooner treatment begins, the less chance there is of severe lung damage. Learn Pranayam - the yoga of breathing right. It will give you better control over your breath and mind too.

Disclaimer: Tips and suggestions mentioned in the article are for general information purposes only and should not be construed as professional medical advice. Always consult your doctor or a dietician before starting any fitness programme or making any changes to your diet.

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