Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an umbrella term we use to describe any progressive lung disease. It includes chronic bronchitis, stubborn, unmanageable or severe asthma and emphysema.
- Chronic: It’s a long-term condition and doesn’t go away.
- Obstructive: Your airways are narrowed, which makes it harder to breathe out quickly.
- Pulmonary: It affects your lungs.
- Disease: It’s a medical condition.
The most common symptoms of COPD are breathlessness (a “need for air”), chronic cough, and mucus production. COPD develops slowly and becomes apparent after the age of 40 or 50 years. As the condition gradually worsens, your usual activities like going up a flight of stairs or carrying a suitcase can become very difficult. You may often also experience serious episodes of increased breathlessness, coughing and mucus production that last for several days to a few weeks.
COPD is usually caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants like tobacco smoke (either active or secondhand smoking) that damages your lungs. This results in narrowing of the airways which ultimately makes it harder to move air in and out as you breathe. Your lungs become less capable of taking in oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide.
Other risk factors include exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution and occupational dust and fumes.
It’s a global issue
- According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, there were over 250 million cases COPD globally in 2016.
- Estimates show that COPD will become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2030.
- More than 90% of COPD deaths happen in low and middle-income countries.
- Indoor air pollution (like solid fuel used for cooking and heating).
- Outdoor air pollution.
- Dust and chemicals (like vapours, irritants, and fumes).
- Frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood.
Your airways are lined by muscle and elastic tissue. In a healthy lung, the tissue between the airways acts as packing and pulls on the airways to keep them open. With COPD, the airways are narrowed because:
- The lung tissue is damaged so there’s less pull on the airways.
- The elastic lining of the airways flops.
- The airway lining is inflamed.
When to see your doctor
COPD is a progressive and incurable disease, but with the right diagnosis and treatment, you can manage your condition and breathe easier. You can live a healthy life for many years with COPD.
If your doctor thinks that you may have COPD, she’ll likely refer you to a pulmonologist; a doctor who specialises in lung disorders. The specialist may give you medication that usually comes in the form of an inhaler to help relax the muscles around your airways. This could range from bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, combination inhalers, oral steroids, and antibiotics. These will help relieve coughing and shortness of breath which will make breathing much easier.