What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive form of lung disease ranging from mild to severe. It is characterized by a restriction of airflow into and out of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. COPD is the umbrella term for sufferers who have been diagnosed with or show signs of emphysema and/or chronic bronchitis.
COPD Limits the Quality of Life
Many sufferers have trouble walking short distances and are especially susceptible to illness and pneumonia. Often, sufferers need oxygen support 24 hours a day. If you show signs of emphysema or chronic bronchitis you may have COPD. The long term effects of COPD result in an enlargement of the right side of the heart and eventual death. There is no cure for COPD but treatment options are available to prevent more damage and improve quality of life.
The number one cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. The toxins in cigarette smoke destroy tissue and cause inflammation of the lungs. Imagine soaking a sponge in red paint, when you squeeze the sponge most of the red paint comes out. However, a residual paint is left inside the sponge that may take several minutes of scrubbing to wash out. The toxins from cigarette smoke have the same effect on your lungs.
When you smoke a cigarette, the toxins are inhaled into the lungs soaking the passageways and air sacs. The structure and elasticity are destroyed. When you breathe out, only some of the toxins leave your body. In the case of the sponge, you can eventually wash the paint out. Unfortunately, you can never fix the damage that is done to your lungs.
When cigarette smoke is repeatedly inhaled, the cilia or hair-like structures responsible for clearing mucus and other secretions, disappear. As a result, mucus is unable to clear from the lower respiratory tract causing “smokers cough.” Mucus build-up provides an advantageous environment for bacteria to grow and spread, which can lead to infection. The lungs are unable to fight off this infection because the toxins in cigarette smoke have destroyed the immune cells responsible for fighting bacteria. As a result, sufferers of emphysema are prone to chronic illness.
Alpha-1-antitrypsin (or alpha-1 antiprotease)
Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a rare genetic disorder that decreases the production of a specific protein. An alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency may cause emphysema to develop in people who have never smoked cigarettes. Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a substance in the lungs that fights the enzyme trypsin (or protease). Trypsin is an enzyme released by immune cells in both the digestive tract and in the lungs, which fights bacteria or digests food. In people who are alpha-1-antitrypsin deficient, the lungs cannot fight the destructive nature of the trypsin. Therefore, the lung tissue is progressively weakened and destroyed, similar to what is found in a person who has smoked cigarettes.
A consistent inhalation of air pollutants can cause inflammation in the lungs leading to lung damage and emphysema. The most common places people consume such pollutants is in dense urban environments and near industrial complexes that use harsh chemicals or burn fossil fuels for energy.
Inhalation of the Following Chemicals:
- Cadmium dust/fume
- Coal dust
- Cotton dust
- Grain and flour dust
- Mineral dust
- Organic dusts
- Silica dust
- Welding fumes
Chemicals Found in the Environments of the Following Professions:
- Coal miners
- Industrial workers
- Tunnel workers
- Hard rock miners
- Cotton fiber workers
- Brick makers
- Construction workers
- Dock workers
- Flour and grain industry workers
- Petroleum workers
- Pottery/ceramic workers
- Rubber and plastic industry workers
- Textile workers
- Cadmium workers
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath is defined as difficult breathing that does not directly relate to physical exertion. It may occur while exerting oneself or lying down. Often times, a sense of anxiety follows and a feeling of tightness or cramping in the chest wall. Shortness of breath is commonly associated with emphysema.
Constant Coughing or “Smokers Cough”
Constant coughing or “smokers cough” is an ongoing cough that produces excess mucus or phlegm. Yellow or green phlegm may indicate chronic bronchitis or pneumonia. Current or former smokers of tobacco are the most likely to develop smokers cough. However, non-smokers may develop symptoms as well.
Sleep apnea is a condition in which the airway to the lungs are blocked causing the sufferer to repeatedly stop breathing during the sleep cycle. Damage to the lungs associated with COPD may cause sleep apnea to develop. This sleep disorder leaves people feeling lethargic or fatigued.
Wheezing is associated with a whistling sound while breathing, and occurs primarily with emphysema.
Re-occurring Upper Respiratory Infections, Pneumonia and Bronchitis
If You Experience Any of the Following, Seek Immediate Attention:
- Your blood pressure is elevated or your heartbeat is abnormally quick.
- You feel less alert or your cognitive reasoning isn’t typical.
- Your lips or fingernails turn blue.
Severity of Symptoms
It is important to note that every case of COPD is different. Sufferers may or may not have the symptoms previously listed, and many of these symptoms are consistent with other conditions. If you think you might have COPD, it is important to check with your doctor as soon as possible. If you have been diagnosed, stem cell treatment for COPD is available to improve your quality of life.
Men and Women
In the past, men were most commonly affected with COPD. However with the rise of tobacco use by females, specifically in high-income countries, men and women are now afflicted almost equally. In 2007, approximately 64,000 women in America died of COPD compared to 60,000 men.
Individuals 40 Years and Older
COPD is a progressive disease and therefore affects people later in life. As a result, current or former smokers 40 years or older are the most commonly afflicted with COPD. However, the age of the sufferer directly relates to the age at which his or her lungs were damaged. For example, a child that grew up in a heavily polluted area may be at risk to developing COPD much earlier in life.
Cigarette smokers are at the highest risk of developing COPD. The toxins in cigarette smoke absorb into the bronchial walls causing the inflammation and damage that leads to COPD. However, not all smokers develop symptoms. More research needs to be done as to why COPD only affects some smokers and not others. It is speculated that nutrition, genetic factors and other external influences contribute to the likelihood of COPD development.
Alpha-1-antitypsin deficiency causes COPD in a small percentage of people. Those with this deficiency do not need to be a smoker to be susceptible to this disease. It can also strikes people at a young age.
A long-term exposure to harsh dusts, chemical fumes, pollution and vapors can cause COPD-related inflammation in the lungs.
Proper lung health is imperative to a person’s overall health. There are many related conditions and medical diseases that can impact the quality of your breathing and are not limited to the lung diseases that we treat at the Lung Institute. Below you will find more information about conditions that are intimately connected to the lungs and lung disease.