COPD: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Updated on 1 June 2023

COPD: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (or COPD) is a lung condition that affects the breathing of a person. People with COPD find it difficult to breathe normally, and as the disease progresses, doing simple daily tasks can also become hard.

COPD is a culmination of a few different lung problems. In addition, people with COPD can have Emphysema, Chronic Bronchitis, or both. 

  • Emphysema refers to damage to the alveoli or air sacs in the lung. This results in damage to the walls inside them and causes them to merge into one giant air sac. Due to this, the alveoli are unable to absorb oxygen properly. It also causes air to trap inside the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
  • Chronic Bronchitis, on the other hand, is the condition in which mucus forms in the lungs, and the lungs are unable to expel it.

What are the Causes of COPD?

The causes of COPD include:

  • Smoking cigarettes is the major cause of COPD. COPD is essentially when the lungs are exposed to irritating gases or particulate matter for long periods. 
  • It can be due to different kinds of occupational hazards as well. 
  • People who inhale second-hand smoke are also at risk of developing COPD over time.
  • Air pollution can also be a contributing factor to COPD. 
  • Another cause for developing COPD is a genetic disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency.

How is COPD diagnosed?

COPD is often misdiagnosed in the early stages. It is usually diagnosed using a Lung function test which is a simple breathing test called spirometry. The doctor may also run the following tests if you have chronic difficulty in breathing:

  • Arterial blood gas analysis
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Laboratory tests 

Complications of COPD

COPD can lead to several complications, including:

  • Increased susceptibility to respiratory infections: People with COPD have a higher risk of contracting respiratory infections such as colds, flu, and pneumonia. These infections can worsen breathing difficulties and potentially cause further damage to the lungs.
  • Heart problems: COPD is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, including heart attacks. While the exact reasons for this link are not fully understood, the strain on the cardiovascular system due to impaired lung function may contribute to heart-related complications.
  • Lung cancer: Individuals with COPD face a higher risk of developing lung cancer. The chronic inflammation and damage to lung tissue caused by COPD can increase the likelihood of cancerous changes in the lungs.
  • Pulmonary hypertension: COPD can lead to high blood pressure in the arteries that supply blood to the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary hypertension. This places additional strain on the heart and lungs, making breathing even more challenging.
  • Depression: The difficulties in breathing associated with COPD can limit a person's ability to engage in activities they once enjoyed, leading to a reduced quality of life. Dealing with a chronic and serious illness like COPD can also contribute to the development of depression.

Risk factors for COPD

Understanding these risk factors is crucial for both early detection and prevention of COPD. Here are the key risk factors for COPD:

  • Smoking: Cigarette smoking is the most significant risk factor accounting for about 80-90% of all COPD cases. The harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke irritate and damage the airways and lung tissue, leading to chronic inflammation and airflow obstruction. Smokers are at a much higher risk of developing COPD than non-smokers, and the risk increases with the duration and intensity of smoking.
  • Secondhand smoke: Exposure to secondhand smoke, also known as passive smoking or environmental tobacco smoke, is another significant risk factor for COPD. Breathing in smoke from other people's cigarettes, cigars, or pipes can also cause lung damage and increase the risk of developing COPD, especially in non-smokers.
  • Occupational exposure: Prolonged exposure to certain workplace pollutants and dust, such as chemicals, fumes, gases, and fine particles, can increase the risk of COPD. Industries like mining, construction, agriculture, and manufacturing are particularly associated with a higher risk of developing COPD due to exposure to occupational hazards.
  • Air pollution: Long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution, such as particulate matter, ozone, and other toxic gases, can contribute to the development and worsening of COPD. Indoor air pollution from burning solid fuels, like wood and charcoal, for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes is also a risk factor.
  • Genetic factors: Some individuals have genetic predispositions that make them more susceptible to COPD. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is one such genetic condition that can increase the risk of developing COPD, particularly in non-smokers or those with minimal smoking history.
  • Respiratory infections: Repeated or severe respiratory infections, especially during childhood, can lead to lung damage and increase the risk of COPD later in life. Infections like pneumonia and bronchitis can cause inflammation and scarring in the airways, contributing to the development of COPD.
  • Asthma: Individuals with a history of asthma may be at a higher risk of developing COPD if their asthma is not well-controlled or they are exposed to additional risk factors like smoking or occupational hazards.
  • Age: While COPD can occur at any age, it is more commonly diagnosed in individuals over the age of 40. As people age, their lung function naturally declines, making them more susceptible to the development of COPD, especially if they have other risk factors.

What are the Symptoms of COPD?

The most common symptoms of COPD are related to problems with breathing.

  • Shortness of breath. This can be due to mild exercise or even during daily activities. 
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Chronic cough with clear, white, or greenish mucus. 

Other symptoms of COPD may be:

  • Blue Fingernails
  • Lack of Energy
  • Unintended Weight Loss 
  • Swollen Ankles, Feet or Legs

How is COPD diagnosed?

COPD is often misdiagnosed in the early stages. It is usually diagnosed using a Lung function test which is a simple breathing test called spirometry. The doctor may also run the following tests if you have chronic difficulty in breathing:

  • Arterial blood gas analysis
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Laboratory tests 

How is COPD treated?

The treatment is provided to help with breathing, relieve symptoms, and improve the overall quality of life. The most common treatment is to first stop smoking and exposure to any harmful particulate matter. Other treatments include the following:

  • Medication: These include bronchodilators and oral & inhaled steroids.
  • Lung Therapy: These include oxygen therapy and a pulmonary rehabilitation program.
  • Non-invasive Ventilation Therapy: This includes the use of breathing devices such as Bilevel-Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP).
  • Surgery: In some cases, surgery is an option. This includes lung volume reduction surgery, lung transplant, and bullectomy.

Patients may also experience periods of flare-ups or exacerbations in which symptoms worsen, and they will need to be hospitalized for treatment. 

How can we prevent COPD?

Quitting smoking is the best way to prevent COPD from developing. Also, avoid environments and occupations that lead to exposure to any harmful particulate matter. Those who already have COPD should take precautions to prevent the progression of diseases and the development of other infections.

COPD is a serious disease. However, with proper care and treatment, COPD patients go on to live good lives while managing their symptoms.





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