Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is related to chronic bronchitis, chronic asthma and emphysema. In each of these conditions there is an obstruction of the airways, preventing a smooth flow of air. This obstruction is permanent and usually worsens over time.
The airways hang like an upside down tree in your lungs. Surrounding the branches of this tree are inflated sacs called alveoli. As we breathe in these sacs expand and then deflate as we breathe out. COPD is diagnosed when these sacs loose their elasticity and the airways loose their shape, making it harder to breathe normally.
In cases of asthma, the airways become obstructed but this is usually reversible with treatment. If left untreated this obstruction can become permanent, the lungs will remodel and COPD will be diagnosed. There is no cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but with the appropriate treatment, further damage can be prevented and the patient can feel more comfortable.
What are the causes?
Cigarette smoking is the cause of 90% of COPD cases in the United States. Inhalation of tobacco smoke will cause cells in the lungs to inflame. This inflammation will activate enzymes that destroy the elasticity of the alveoli. Continued smoking will only worsen the symptoms of COPD. It is essential that a patient stop smoking straight away. Patients who stop smoking quickly regulate their decline to that of a nonsmoker.
Less common causes of COPD include occupational pollutants related to coal miners, construction workers, etc. 1% of COPD cases are also related to alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Alpha-1 antitrypsin blocks the damaging effects of an enzyme that reduces the elasticity of alveoli. The deficiency of this protein is inherited genetically and is very rare.
What treatments are available?
The first and most important treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is to quit smoking. Continuation of smoking will see a rapid decline of lung function. There are programs and groups available to help you abstain and overcome nicotine addiction. It is a sad fact that only a third of patients are able to stop smoking completely. If you do smoke and have been diagnosed with COPD, try your very best to make sure you are part of that one third. Your doctor may advise a bronchodilator. This is an inhaled medication that will relax the muscles surrounding the airway and making it easier to breathe. It is possible to take this medication orally or have it intravenously administered. Inhalation is the preferred method, because it gets to work immediately on the problem area. A patient has to get used to using an inhaler. It is important that the patient breathe in every time they press down on the canister. If this is not synchronized, the medication can rest on the tongue instead of being deposited in the airways. Oxygen therapy may also be advised. This will be inhaled through a mask. Oxygen therapy will relax the blood vessels and decrease the pressure on the lungs. The increased pressure in the lungs, calls for the heart to work harder to pump blood to the lungs and this can cause the heart muscle to swell. Oxygen therapy will reduce the burden placed on the heart and lungs and will also increase patient mobility and comfort.