Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive inflammatory lung disease. It causes obstructed airflow from the lungs leading to large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

COPD is most often caused by smoking. It can also be caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants such as air pollution or dust. To treat COPD, a patient must stop smoking. Their doctor may also prescribe medications, lung therapies and, in severe cases, surgery.

What is COPD?

COPD is a progressive disease that causes patients to have difficulty breathing. COPD causes inflammation in lungs that thickens the airways.

It also causes mucus to build up, clogging the airways. This lessens the amount of air that flows through the lungs making it harder for the body tissues to receive oxygen and harder for the body to get rid of carbon dioxide.

COPD  is most often caused by smoking. Smoking weakens the lungs immune system, narrows the airways and causes swelling in the air tubes. It can also be caused by lung irritants including secondhand smoke, air pollution, exposure to dust, smoke or fumes. Left untreated, COPD can lead to heart disease, lung cancer, high blood pressure and death.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

When a patient is suffering from COPD, the symptoms typically don’t appear until after significant lung damage has occurred. Some people mistake the symptoms such as coughing and breathlessness as a normal part of aging.

Symptoms include:

  • Increased breathlessness
  • Frequent coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Fatigue
  • Having to clear the throat first thing in the morning as a result of built-up mucus

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary DiseaseSymptoms will typically start out mild and become more severe if left untreated.

What are the nonsurgical treatment options for COPD?

While COPD has no cure, lifestyle changes and medications can help alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. First, if a patient is a smoker, they should quit smoking immediately. Quitting smoking will slow the progression of COPD.

A patient may also undergo lung therapies. Oxygen therapy is used when a patient isn’t receiving enough oxygen. A pulmonary rehabilitation program combines exercise, nutrition and counselling to help improve quality of life.

A patient may also be prescribed medicine to treat the symptoms of COPD. Medications may include:

  • Bronchodilators — these usually come in an inhaler and relax the muscles around the airways, making it easier to breathe
  • Inhaled steroids — theses are inhaled corticosteroid medications and reduce inflammation
  • Combination inhalers — these combine bronchodilators and inhaled steroids
  • Oral steroids — these are used for people with moderate symptoms that are worsening
  • Theophylline — a medication that prevents worsening symptoms and helps improve breathing
  • Antibiotics — antibiotics are typically used for prevention

What are the surgical treatments for COPD?

In severe cases, patients may need to undergo surgery. Common surgical treatments are known as a bullectomy and lung volume reduction surgery.

During a bullectomy, the bulla (an air pocket in the lung that is greater than a centimeter in diameter) is removed through an incision made below the armpit.

During lung volume reduction surgery, the damaged lung tissue is removed from the upper lungs. This creates extra space in the chest cavity allowing the healthier lung tissue to expand.

What is recovery like following surgery for COPD?

After a bullectomy, a patient remains in the hospital for a few days. After six to eight weeks, a patient will be recovered and have regained their strength.

After lung volume reduction surgery, a patient remains in the hospital for five to 10 days. Pulmonary rehabilitation begins within four to six weeks. A full recovery typically takes eight to 12 weeks.

What are the results of surgery for COPD?

Following a bullectomy, a patient will experience improved quality of life for the first year and may experience a decline in improvement after a few years. Lung volume reduction surgery typically improves the quality of life for patients and increases a patient’s prognosis.

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