Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
What is COPD?
COPD stands for 'Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease', which means it is a long-lasting disease of the lungs. If you have been diagnosed with COPD this means that you have damage to the airways in your lungs. Damage to the airways means they become narrower, making it harder for air to get in and out of the lungs. This damage and narrowing causes the symptoms of COPD which are increasing shortness of breath, coughing and an increase in secretions from your lungs such as mucus.
People who are diagnosed with COPD usually have a lung condition called chronic bronchitis or a lung condition called emphysema, and in many cases they have both of these conditions.
What is chronic bronchitis?
Chronic bronchitis is a constant and long-lasting irritation and swelling of the airways. The main symptoms of chronic bronchitis are cough and increased secretions from the lungs such as mucus.
What is emphysema?
Emphysema is a condition where air gets trapped inside the lungs. This makes it harder to breathe in again. The main symptom of emphysema is breathlessness.
What causes COPD?
COPD cannot be caught from someone else. However, some people inherit (due to their genes) a greater risk of developing COPD, and this risk is even greater if they smoke. Most people who are affected by COPD are over the age of 35, and many are (or have previously been) regular smokers. However, COPD can also affect non-smokers who:
- have had asthma for a long-time,
- suffered from a lot of chest infections when they were younger,
- have been exposed to pollution or to smoke, dust and fumes in the workplace or the home over a long time.
Cigarette smoking - either now or in the past - is the most common cause of COPD.
Could I have COPD?
People with COPD suffer from increasing shortness of breath, coughing and an increase in secretions from their lung such as mucus.
Shortness of breath
To begin with, you may notice that you feel puffed or short of breath only when you push yourself, such as when you climb stairs or walk up a hill. People often think this is a normal sign of getting older. However if you have a diagnosis of COPD and don't take steps to manage your condition, shortness of breath can gradually become worse, especially if you continue to smoke. When your symptoms get worse you can start to feel puffed just doing your daily activities around the house, even when you simply have a shower.
Coughing is usually the first symptom to develop. To start with it may come and go, but it can gradually become more permanent. You may only notice an increase in coughing in winter at first and may think it is because of having a cold, or think of your cough as a "just a smokers' cough" and wrongly think it won't get any worse. This means that you might not take steps to reduce your symptoms in the early stages of COPD.
Lung secretions such as mucus
If you have COPD you may have a build-up of mucus in the lungs, which you either swallow or cough up each day. This is because damaged airways make more mucus than normal.
Can COPD be treated?
There is no cure for COPD as the damage to your lungs cannot be reversed. However, you can take steps to control the symptoms and slow down further damage to your lungs.
COPD is a progressive disease which means if you carry on damaging your lungs, for example by continuing to smoke, and if you don't treat the symptoms of COPD they will most likely get worse over time.
COPD can be managed, and symptoms can be controlled with medication and by making changes to your life if required.
There are things you can do to help manage COPD:
- Make sure that you and your family understand the diagnosis of COPD. You will need to explain your condition to your family and friends. Tell them what COPD is and what the effects on your life may be. It is important to maintain your relationships with your family and friends, as this can help you keep a positive outlook on life.
- Take part in decisions about the management of your condition with your doctor and family and friends.
- Look after your health and wellbeing - get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet and make time for socialising.
- If you are feeling depressed, it is important that you talk with your doctor about this. Don't wait and see how things go, because if you are feeling depressed you may not feel motivated to take care of your condition.
- Develop a COPD action plan with your doctor to help manage your symptoms.