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What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a disease that makes it hard to empty air out of your lungs. This is because the airways get smaller leading to airflow obstruction. This can result in shortness of breath or tiredness because you are working harder to breathe.

COPD is a term used to include chronic bronchitis, emphysema or a combination of both conditions.

Chronic bronchitis is caused by inflammation and increased mucus (phlegm) in the breathing tubes (airways). Because of the swelling and extra mucus the inside of the breathing tubes become smaller causing obstruction in airflow.

Emphysema is caused by damage to the air sacs (alveoli) of the lung. Normally there are more than 300 million air sacs in the lungs. If the walls of the air sacs are damaged they lose their elasticity and trap air. This causes extra air to remain in the lungs after you breathe out. The extra effort required to breathe results in shortness of breath.

Most people with COPD are smokers or have smoked in the past. Sometimes COPD is caused by working or living for many years in an environment where there is exposure to smoke, dust or other fumes. COPD mostly affects those over the age of 35. An inherited condition called ALPHA – 1 – ANTITRYPSIN deficiency can also cause COPD but this is quite rare.

Diagnosing COPD?

The diagnosis of COPD is based on a combination of:

  • Your medical history
  • A physical examination
  • An assessment of your symptoms
  • Results of a spirometry test which looks at the pattern of your breathing
  • Symptoms such as breathlessness and chronic cough, with or without phlegm,
  • Exposure to risk factors for the disease

Treatment of COPD

Smoking cessation is the first line of treatment for COPD

There are various types of medication that may be prescribed to treat COPD. Some of these include:

  • Bronchodilators
  • Corticosteroids
  • Antibiotics
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Vaccinations
  • Expectorants

Your medication may be taken in different ways. In order for the medication to work properly, you must take them as instructed, even when you are feeling better.

Bronchodilators help to relax and open your airways making it easier to breath. Bronchodilators are either short acting or long acting.

Combination inhalers contain both a reliever and a corticosteroid preventer. The action of the reliever is to keep the airways open, providing relief. The action of the corticosteroid preventer is to reduce inflammation in the lungs.

Oral Corticosteroids are high dose anti-inflammatories and can be used during a flare up for a short period of time. Occasionally some patients require a low maintenance dose.

Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria.

Theophyllines are used in some patients who may require further bronchodilation (opening of the airways).

Pulmonary Rehabilitation is a multidisciplinary programme which involves doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, dieticians, occupational therapists, social workers and clinical psychologists. The programme covers exercise training, nutritional advice, education about your condition and offers counselling.

Breathing Exercises are a key element in controlling the breathlessness associated with COPD. A physiotherapist will introduce you to breathing exercises. Pursed Lip Breathing works when you find it hard to breath. You can learn this now so you will not panic when you feel short of breath. Check out these videos to see some of the exercises performed, and how beneficial it is!

Vaccinations prevent lung infection from viruses and bacteria.

Expectorants can be used for patients who have excessive production of mucus, however not all patients benefit from this medication.

Useful links:

Reproduced by kind permission of the European Lung Foundation