By Dr. Colleen Townsend, Special to the Daily Republic
COPD is a chronic lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. In COPD, which stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the airways (tubes that move air through the lungs) become narrow and damaged. This makes breathing difficult and causes tiredness.
There is no cure for COPD, and this condition tends to get worse over time. There are treatments that help symptoms and there are steps to take that slow the disease progression.
COPD is also called “chronic bronchitis” or “emphysema.” COPD is caused by breathing in toxic fumes or gases. Smoking tobacco is the most common cause of COPD. Rarely, COPD is caused by a genetic condition that is passed through families.
People with COPD develop symptoms over time. Common symptoms include feeling short of breath with activities, wheezing while breathing (high-pitched whistle from the lungs), cough with phlegm and feeling tired with limited activities. People with COPD have problems with lung infections, heart problems and have a higher risk of getting lung cancer.
There are tests that medical providers order to determine if a person has COPD. The medical provider examines breathing patterns and listens to the breath sounds, will order an X-ray of the lungs or an echocardiogram (specialized imaging of the heart function) and blood tests. Spirometry; a breathing test, measures how air moves out of the lungs with breathing. When COPD symptoms worsen and usual medications are not helping, a lung specialist (pulmonologist) may be consulted to advise on treatment options.
While COPD does not have a cure, there are treatments that improve breathing and quality of life. The medical provider will recommend inhaled medications that improve airflow in the lungs to ease breathing. Some people also benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation to learn exercises that improve breathing and decrease the symptoms of COPD. As COPD progresses, some people use oxygen to improve breathing. Smoking makes COPD progress more rapidly; quitting smoking slows the progress of COPD and makes people feel better.
People with COPD are at risk to develop severe illness from lung infections due to bacteria or viruses. To avoid serious illness and hospitalizations, people with COPD should receive routine vaccines. Important vaccines to discuss with the medical provider include influenza (”flu”), pneumonia and Covid-19 vaccines.
COPD is a chronic condition that causes daily problems with breathing that are managed with the regular use of medications. At times, the condition can significantly worsen as noted by more coughing or breathing that worsens. This is a COPD exacerbation. When COPD symptoms worsen, your primary care provider or specialist may offer additional medication to treat the COPD exacerbation. However, if the breathing symptoms are severe and not improving with medications, an evaluation in the emergency room or urgent care may be needed.
After a hospital or emergency room or urgent care visit, it is important to schedule an appointment with the primary care provider to make sure all the necessary treatments have been started and that the symptoms are improving.
COPD is a common lung condition that makes it hard to breathe. Medications treat symptoms and improve the quality of life. Talk to your medical provider about an evaluation for COPD if you have problems with breathing or coughing. Quitting smoking will prevent and slow the progress of COPD. A medical provider can offer advice about counseling and medications to quit smoking. If you have COPD, please talk with your medical provider to make sure you have the right medications and are current on the required vaccines to keep you healthy.
Colleen Townsend, M.D., is a family physician with the Partnership HealthPlan of California, a partner of Solano Public Health.