Imagine feeling out of breath every time you walk up a flight of stairs or having a persistent cough every single day. For those who are healthy, the very thought could be exhausting. But for those who live with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), this is an everyday nightmare that they live through.
COPD is a chronic inflammatory disease disrupts the airflow from the lungs due to a particular reason – usually irritant gases or particulate matter due to smoking. Both emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two common conditions that come under the umbrella term of COPD.
In addition to the aforementioned difficulties, COPD increases the risk for developing heart disease, lung cancer and a multitude of other conditions. In India, according to an article published in the lancet, there are over 55.3 million cases reported. The same study indicates that on the global level, 32% of the cases of COPD are in India. A better understanding of the condition, its prevention, symptoms and treatment can hopefully help in bringing these numbers down.
What exactly is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?
Before we delve into the risk factors for COPD and its tell-tale symptoms, we have to understand what exactly constitutes the condition.
COPD is a group of progressive lung conditions, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. A large number of patients diagnosed with COPD have both these conditions. Emphysema is a condition where air sacs in your lungs are slowly destroyed, which can hinder airflow. Bronchitis, on the other hand, causes inflammation and narrowing in the bronchial tube, which will cause mucus build-up.
What are the risk factors and symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?
The most common cause for COPD is tobacco smoking, and long term exposure to chemical irritants come in a close second. The common factor is that it takes a long time of exposure to cause COPD. But once it develops, it’s not possible to completely cure it and can only be treated to manage the symptoms, reduce complications and make it easier to live with. The diagnosis is usually done through a number of imaging tests, blood tests and lung function tests. The treatments often include medications, supplemental oxygen therapy, and even surgery where needed.
According to the Healthline, a large segment of the people who live with COPD is unaware of the state of their lungs. The symptoms are so mild at first that it is usually ignored and is only addressed when the lung damage is much too severe. The initial symptoms are wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath after physical activities, mild and recurrent cough, and build-up of sputum.
But as time progresses, the symptoms can worsen to become severe shortness of breath after any form of physical activity, chronic cough, frequent cases of cold, flu or wheezing, increased fatigue. These symptoms are indicators of your worsening lung damage and are cause for immediate attention.
There is an immediate need for attention if a COPD patient experiences severe weight loss, racing heart, bluish nails or lips due to lack of oxygen, can’t talk or catch their breath or feel dazed. These are all symptomatic of severe lung damage and will need emergency treatment.
While these symptoms can act as warning signs to take better care, there are certain risk factors that people should look out for, when it comes to COPD. The main culprit is cigarette smoking – about 90% of the COPD patients are smokers or former smokers.
The most common demographic who have COPD are long time smokers who have been exposed to cigarette, cigar, pipe or secondhand smoke for a longer duration and are above 40 years old. Asthmatics who smoke are at even higher risk for developing COPD. In more rare cases, long term exposure to certain chemicals or fumes in the workplace or even to polluted air and dust can also cause COPD.
There is also a genetic trait where the lack of a protein can promote COPD, but it’s so rare that only 5% of COPD patients have been affected by this. This is a deficiency that makes the lungs and liver get damaged too quickly.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, the cause for COPD and the general health of the patient, there are a number of ways in which the condition can be treated.
How can Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease be treated?
COPD is a chronic condition that cannot be reversed and will require a major lifestyle change to be controlled. In addition, depending on the severity of the symptoms, the cause for COPD and the general health of the patient, there are a number of ways in which the condition can be treated. An expert pulmonologist can help in assessing your condition and addressing the concerns.
The most commonly prescribed medicines include bronchodilators that help relax and widen the airway to make breathing easier. This is usually done with the help of inhalers or nebulizers. Corticosteroids may also be prescribed to reduce the inflammation created by COPD. Since the condition increases a patient’s risk for other respiratory conditions, doctors may also recommend taking vaccines for flu, pneumonia and tetanus.
If the blood oxygen level of the patient is too low, they will be treated with oxygen therapy to help breathe better. In severe cases of emphysema, patients will be recommended to undergo surgeries such as bullectomy that remove abnormal air spaces from the lungs or lung volume surgery to remove damaged lung tissues. In the worst-case scenario, a lung transplant may also be considered.
The other major recommendation is lifestyle changes to address the symptoms such as quitting smoking, avoiding secondhand smoking and chemical exposure. Following a healthy eating plan low in salt can also assist in improving a patient’s health. Salt tends to increase the amount of water in the body, which can make breathing harder. Patients who are overweight will also be asked to lose weight as it puts additional stress on the lungs and heart, worsening their COPD and increasing the chance for heart damage.
When living with COPD, certain factors may exacerbate your condition and cause occasional flare-ups. This usually involves physically taxing activities or exposure to certain irritants like smoke or dust. This flareup can be monitored by paying attention to ease of breathing and the frequency of coughing. With severe flare-ups, patients may feel fatigued, fever, signs of cold, coughing up with mucus, swelling, sleep disturbances and even feeling dazed. Most doctors will recommend being prepared for flare-ups by having emergency contact information and medicines at hand.
What is the COVID-19 risk for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease patients?
With COVID-19 cases on the rise, those who are living with pre-existing conditions, especially respiratory conditions are at a higher risk of experiencing fatal infections. According to a study published in the European Respiratory Journal, 62.5% of the severe cases of COVID-19 had a history of COPD. Factors such as age, blood pressure, immunity as well as preexisting conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer can increase the risk to contact COVID-19.
Since there is still a lack of information regarding how much a patient’s COPD and even COPD medication can make them vulnerable to COVID-19, most doctors recommend practising extra caution. Like everyone, COPD patients are asked to maintain excellent hygiene, practice social distance, avoid venturing out as much as possible, stocking up on any necessary medicines and oxygen. Having an oximeter and thermometer handy could also help in self-monitoring. Doctors also recommend sticking to the prescribed COPD treatment plan, avoiding smoking and dust, and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle.
With COVID-19 numbers soaring, it is more important than ever for patients with respiratory conditions like COPD to take extra care of themselves. Paying attention to their symptoms, forming better lifestyle habits and listening to their doctor are the best things they can do to improve their condition.
Reading up about their condition and self-monitoring their condition can also go a long way in helping COPD patients take charge of their health. Using an app like Phable, they can monitor their vitals and symptoms and receive medicine reminders to ensure the best adherence possible.
Phable is an innovative lifestyle disease management app simplifying life for patients & doctors through video consultations and remote healthcare.