COPD For Caregivers, Part One

Fifteen million people in the United States have been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and according to the CDC, at least half of adults in the very early stage of the disease were unaware that they had it. This means that the actual number of sufferers could be much higher, making Healthy Lung Awareness Month this October 2014 even more necessary. Possible sufferers and caregivers alike need to know the symptoms, stages and impact of COPD, which was the third leading cause of death in 2011. COPD is a progressive disease, and there is no cure as yet, so lifestyle changes and homecare support and assistance are the best treatment options.

What is COPD?

Stock photo COPD lungs
When a healthy person breathes, air flows through tubes in the lungs—called airways—to millions of tiny air sacs. In a normally functioning lung, the airways are open so the air sacs inflate, taking in oxygen. Oxygen is exchanged into the bloodstream, and the remaining carbon dioxide goes quickly out in exhalation. A COPD patient has trouble getting air through their airways, and in and out of the air sacs, called alveoli. Most people with this type of breathing difficulty have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, each of which causes a different type of damage and trauma to the lungs. A human lung can contain hundreds of millions of alveoli, and emphysema damages the walls between many of the alveoli. These alveoli lose their structure, and don’t inflate properly. In severe cases, the walls can be destroyed altogether, resulting in fewer, larger alveoli instead of many tiny ones. This reduces the overall volume of oxygen exchanged for carbon dioxide with each breath, reducing the amount of oxygen circulating in the blood and body. Low blood-oxygen levels result in shortness of breath and muscle weakness. The second associated condition, chronic bronchitis, constantly irritates and inflames the lining of the airways, which causes the lining to thicken. Thick mucus forms in the airways, making it hard to breathe. To see a series of videos showing how COPD affects the lungs, go here.

Risk Factors For COPD

The most significant cause of COPD is a history of cigarette smoking. Long-term smoking inflames the lining of the airways, causing them to lose their elasticity and ability to expand and contract fully. For smokers, the longer the smoking history, and the heavier the habit, the higher the risk of contracting COPD. Asthmatics, in particular, who smoke, are putting an already compromised airway under further duress. Pipe, cigar, marijuana, and unfortunately, second-hand smokers are also at risk for COPD. Other factors can include exposure to air pollution, occupational dust and environmental chemicals. Quitting smoking is typically the doctor’s first recommendation after diagnosing COPD.

Symptoms of COPD

COPD develops in four stages, and stage one is often so subtle that the CDC estimates many millions of people have COPD currently without realizing it. Initially, a person may experience shortness of breath periodically, without any coughing or mucus, which may not cause any alarm at all. The serious symptoms of COPD often don’t show up until major lung damage has occurred, and can include the following, according to The Mayo Clinic:
• Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
• Wheezing
• Chest tightness
• Having to clear your throat first thing in the morning, due to excess mucus in your lungs
• A chronic cough that produces sputum that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish
• Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
• Frequent respiratory infections
• Lack of energy
• Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
COPD patients can also experience morning headaches due to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Also, their feet and ankles can swell because of increased stress on the heart, which is working harder to pump blood through the damaged lungs. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should consult a doctor, who should perform a Pulmonary Function Test, which measures both the volume of air moving in and out of the lungs, and the volume of air the lungs can hold.

Stay tuned next week for Healthy Lung Month: COPD, Part Two