What Is COPD?
01 September 2020 MedicAlert

COPD (Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease) is the name given to a progressive disease that affects the lungs and makes it increasingly more difficult to breathe. The condition includes:

  • Chronic bronchitis - long-term inflammation of the airways
  • Emphysema - damage to the air sacks

The condition is particularly common in smokers as well as those who have been exposed to lung irritants over a long period of time.

It is, mostly, a preventable condition given how closely related it is to smoking.

If you are a smoker, stop. Nothing good comes from smoking.

What Causes COPD?

image of a man smoking

There are a small handful of causes:

  1. Smoking
  2. Air pollutants and long-term exposure to lung irritants
  3. A rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency
  4. Asthma

Smoking, and therefore inhaling lung irritants, over a long period of time is the most common cause of COPD development. In fact, 90% of those with COPD are believed to have developed it as a result of smoking. Even if you are not a smoker, just being exposed to secondhand smoke regularly can be enough of a trigger.

Other irritants can include air pollution, chemical fumes and any other type of environmental dust. A working environment that is filled with the dust of substances as wide-ranging as cadmium, flour, grains, silica, coal and even welding fumes can elevate the likelihood of developing COPD.

Asthma, another chronic airways condition, may also lead to the development of COPD although this is less likely.

The least likely cause of COPD, though still a possibility, is a rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency. This condition is where levels of Alpha-1 Antitrypsin, a protein formed by the liver, are particularly low which can ultimately lead to lung damage, especially if regularly exposed to any lung irritants. It is strongly advised that smokers with this condition cease smoking immediately as COPD is likely to develop and worsen rapidly.

What are The Symptoms of COPD?

a woman coughing

As COPD for many people develops at a relatively slow pace over several years, many people with the condition only begin to notice symptoms in their late 40s/early 50s.

The more typical symptoms include:

  • Breathlessness
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Wheezing
  • Phlegmy, chesty cough

Given the nature of the condition, these symptoms will usually get worse over time which will unfortunately mean one’s ability to carry out physical activities will also weaken.

A person with this condition may also find they experience other symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen ankles

As the condition is respiratory-related there is also the possibility of it flaring up a few times a year, particularly during the winter months.

How is COPD Diagnosed?

a doctor with a stethoscope

It is suggested that if you are over 35 years old and have been, or continue to be, a smoker and are experiencing a persistence of any of the above symptoms, a visit to the doctor will be an important step to take.

Diagnosis is then based on a review of your symptoms alongside your family medical history as well as test results.

However, it is important to note that even if some of the above symptoms are being experienced this will not conclusively mean COPD is the cause, as there are a number of other respiratory conditions that share similar conditions, such as:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchiectasis
  • Anaemia
  • Heart failure

A full examination will help provide clarity over the cause.

How is COPD Treated?

a no smoking sign

Unfortunately the damage that COPD causes to the lungs is irreversible and permanent. However, appropriate treatment can actively help to slow the progression of the condition down.

Treatments can include:

  • Stopping smoking - this is essential for everyone and the absolute first step for any smokers with COPD.
  • Medicines - these can include inhalers to help expand airways.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation - i.e. breathing exercises
  • Surgery - including lung transplant. However, this is uncommon and a last resort.

Is COPD Curable?

In short, no. However, depending on the severity of the condition, the various treatments can help to slow it down and, in many cases, help to reduce the impact of the condition on daily life.

Living with COPD

Being diagnosed with COPD will naturally require some everyday adaptations to life but, for many people with the condition some simple forward planning will help reduce the level of disruption experienced.

Some actions to take include:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Take medications if prescribed,
  • Exercise - this will contribute to a better level of functional fitness and, therefore, quality of life,
  • Eat well - as with exercise, a good diet directly impacts the quality of life, both physically and mentally,
  • Be aware of the weather and use it as a barometer to always be prepared - i.e. knowing ahead of time about cold spells or conditions which may require you to have your medication more readily available,
  • Be aware of the environment and air quality - lung irritants will exacerbate the condition.

Did we mention to stop smoking?

What Are Some Helpful Resources?

If you are looking for further information and advice regarding COPD the two best sources are the NHS and the British Lung Foundation.

If you have been diagnosed with COPD and would like some additional support in your life, a MedicAlert membership could be the peace of mind that you are looking for. Our service is designed specifically for you, to speak for you in emergency situations where you might not be able to do so for yourself.

There are many benefits to MedicAlert membership and wearing a piece of medical ID jewellery. Many of our members have COPD, including Ian and Jacqui, whose stories help illustrate how MedicAlert has helped them.


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