Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) describes a collection of lung diseases that encompass such conditions as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive airways disease, and emphysema. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease makes it difficult for individuals with the condition to breath in and out normally. Smoking has been determined to be the main cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Breathing tobacco smoke destroys the fleshy fibers in the lungs and also causes the airways to become irritated. Inhaling dust, air pollution, and chemical fumes over a long period of time can also contribute to the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The American Lung Association has determined that over 12 million people within the United States have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

What are the Symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

Symptoms may include a persistent cough that produces an inordinate amount of mucus, difficulty breathing during physical activity, a feeling of tightness in the chest, and frequent cases of the flu and colds.  By the time symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease appear there has already been a notable amount of damage done to the lungs.

Other symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may include unintentional weight loss, blueness of the lips, and swelling of the ankles, legs, or feet.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Causes

Many cases of COPD are caused by long term inhalation of pollutants. Cigarette smoke is perhaps the most common pollutant, and COPD may affect both smokers and nonsmokers who are often surrounded by secondhand smoke.

Other pollutants which could cause COPD include chemicals, fumes, and dust. Often, these types of pollutants are inhaled in the workplace, particularly in manufacturing plants and factories.

In some instances, however, COPD may occur without any exposure to pollutants. In these cases, it appears that genetics are the cause of the illness. Experts have found that people with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD), in which the body is deficient in a type of protein which affects white blood cell function, are susceptible to COPD.

There are also some cases of individuals having COPD without exposure to pollutants and without AATD. In these cases, it’s thought that other genetic predispositions are at play, but research is still being done to understand exactly what genetic traits could lead to COPD.

How is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Treated?

Treatment involves the cessation of smoking. Since most smokers have tried many times to quit smoking without success consider asking your doctor about nicotine replacement products. Treatment may also involve attending smoking cessation support groups. Some medications used to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may include bronchodilators and inhaled steroids that make it easier to breathe.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Prevention

COPD cannot always be prevented, but people can reduce their risk by avoiding the inhalation of known pollutants. Smoking is perhaps the most common cause of COPD as well as many other health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Quitting smoking will help to reduce the risk of all these diseases, and it will also help to protect those around you who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.

Individuals who work in environments where harmful pollutants are common should wear appropriate personal protective equipment. Respiratory masks can help to filter out dust, fumes, and chemicals and should be worn whenever you’re in an environment where the pollutants are kicked up into the air, even if you’re not directly working at the source of the pollutants.

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Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
December 18, 2017