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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

People must breath in order to live. The process of breathing ("respiration", in medical terminology) is critical because it is the sole mechanism through which vital gasses such as oxygen and carbon dioxide can move between the air and the blood. When someone breaths in, oxygen is removed from the air and dissolved into the blood where it is used as fuel by the body's cells. When someone breaths out, cellular waste products like carbon dioxide are removed from the blood and exhaled back out into the air. This complex transfer of gasses takes place in the lungs and involves a number of structures associated with the lungs that help move gasses between the lungs and the air: the bronchi (airways or passages within the lungs), and the alveoli (tiny air sacs composed of special membranes found at the end of the bronchi at which point the transfer of gases between the blood and the air occurs).

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD for short) occurs when permanent blockage...


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What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is called COPD for short.
  • This condition occurs when permanent blockages form within the pulmonary system (the lungs and respiratory system) that interfere with the transfer of vital gasses, such as oxygen and carbon dioxide, from the air and the blood.
  • To be diagnosed with COPD means that some portion of the lungs or airways have become permanently obstructed, reducing the volume of air that can be handled by the lungs.
  • As this process progresses, the overall efficiency of the gas exchange process is reduced and it becomes more difficult to breathe.

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What conditions make up Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

  • There are two diseases that can cause COPD: Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis.
  • Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi, which are the airways or passages within the lungs.
  • The walls of the bronchi become inflamed, allowing less air to flow through.
  • This inflammation also creates excessive mucous that is thicker and more difficult to cough up than normal, which then clogs the airways and lowers lung capacity.
  • Emphysema also reduces the efficiency of the gas exchange process, but in a different way.
  • Emphysema affects the alveoli, which are tiny air sacs composed of special membranes found at the end of the bronchi where the transfer of gases between the blood and the air occurs.
  • Emphysema causes the membranes to become brittle, rip and tear, and these cannot be regenerated by the body.
  • Each time the membranes burst, more surface area within the lung necessary for gas transfer is permanently lost.
  • As this process progresses, it becomes very difficult for patients to exhale because their weakened airways threaten to collapse the harder they try to breathe out.
  • The heart tries to compensate for the loss of oxygen available in the bloodstream by pumping harder and faster, which can lead to other serious complications including heart failure.

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What are the symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

  • COPD occurs when either emphysema or chronic bronchitis are present.
  • While emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two separate diseases, they share many symptoms in common including:
    • Excessive coughing or bronchitis-like symptoms for more than 2 months for 2 consecutive years or for 6 months during 1 year
    • Excessive phlegm (mucous) that is difficult to cough up
    • Shortness of breath (particularly noticeable after exercise)
    • Recurrent infections
    • Expanded, barrel-shaped chest
    • Wheezing
    • Blue appearance of the skin
    • Fluid backup, which often causes swelling in the legs

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What are the causes of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

  • Inhaled pollutants (in the air, and also from smoking) are usually the most direct cause of COPD.
  • COPD can also be caused by bacterial and viral infections.
  • Smoking is the most prevalent known cause of COPD because the toxins in tobacco smoke contribute to both emphysema and chronic bronchitis (the two major components of COPD).
  • People who live in areas known for higher incidences of air pollution or who are exposed to air pollutants and dusts at work (for instance, factory workers and coal miners) are known to show a higher instance of COPD.
  • Individuals who inhabit polluted areas or who work in polluted or toxic environments are at high risk and should take precaution to protect themselves.

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How is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) diagnosed?

  • There are multiple ways doctors can look at how well a patient's lungs are functioning.
  • At this point, none of these techniques can detect the onset of COPD before some permanent lung damage has occurred.
  • However, it is still important to see your doctor as soon as you observe any of the symptoms for COPD because the sooner it is diagnosed the better your outcome is likely to be.
  • The first important lung output measurement is lung volume, which is basically the amount of air your lungs can hold when they are full. This is usually tested using a device called a spirometer.
  • Forced Expiratory Volume is the rate at which you can exhale air from your lungs. It is measured by having the patient take a deep breath and then exhale as rapidly as possible. The doctor will then determine the volume of air that was expelled in one second. As COPD worsens, forced expiratory volume will decrease.
  • The doctor can also look at the levels of carbon dioxide versus oxygen dissolved in the blood. As COPD progresses, oxygen levels decrease and carbon dioxide levels increase.

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How is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) treated?

  • At this point in time there are no cures for COPD.
  • There are also a range of medications and procedures that can be used to help manage the symptoms and complications.
  • The mucous that gets trapped inside the airways during COPD can become a home to infection-causing bacteria, so antibiotics are prescribed to help to ward off these respiratory infections.
  • Bronchodilator medications help relax narrowed airways so that more oxygen can get into the bloodstream and more carbon dioxide can be removed.
  • Corticosteroids relax and open constricted airways. These are often used when bronchodilators have stopped working.
  • Digitalis is a medication that works to strengthen the force that the heartbeat contracts with, and it is often prescribed to boost the heart's pumping capacity, and help reduce the extra stress placed on the heart by COPD.
  • Diuretics are substances which cause the body to retain less water than it normally would with the difference leaving the body as urine. They can help combat fluid retention caused by pooling of blood inside the heart's chambers.
  • Oxygen therapy increases patients' blood oxygen levels and can improve brain function, decrease strain on the heart, and lessen some of the symptoms of COPD such as headache and restlessness while trying to sleep.

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How can emphysema be prevented?

  • Regardless of the cause, emphysema cannot be cured once it has been diagnosed.
  • It can be prevented in the first place or slowed in progression through healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Smoking is the single greatest cause of emphysema and the longer someone smokes, the more likely they are to get emphysema. If you currently smoke you should take steps to quit smoking now.
  • You should try to reduce your exposure to airborne pollutants as much as possible, including industrial exposures, and secondhand smoke.
  • Individuals who work in settings with high levels of air pollution (miners for example) or who live or work around people who smoke should do as much as possible to protect their respiratory system.
  • Eating a nutritious diet can help your immune system to stay strong and fight off infection.
  • Starting an aerobic (briskly walking, jogging, swimming, etc.) exercise routine is a great way to strengthen both your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
  • Ask your doctor about breathing exercises you can do to further target and strengthen the muscles used in the breathing process.
  • Moderate regular exercise is a great way to boost your energy levels as well as your immune system.

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How can chronic bronchitis be prevented?

  • Chronic bronchitis is best prevented by avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke or other forms of 'recreational' smoking (including marijuana), and other air pollutants.
  • If you are a smoker, you should stop smoking immediately so as to best preserve your health.
  • If you live or work with smokers, take steps to avoid their second hand smoke.
  • Your risk of permanent respiratory damage rises with each additional year of smoking.
  • Stopping smoking drastically reduces the amount of irritants your lungs are exposed to, allowing your lungs to heal.
  • You should try to avoid airborne pollutants such as dust, chemical and paint fumes as these substances have also been shown to increase your chances of chronic bronchitis.
  • Chest infections are often observed in the early stages of chronic bronchitis, but fortunately these infections can often be avoided by adopting healthy lifestyle habits.
  • Regular aerobic activities (swimming, jogging, playing soccer) can help prevent the onset of chronic bronchitis.
  • Making sure you eat a nutritious, properly balanced diet, while avoiding junk foods is also important for strengthening your immune system.

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