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Breathlessness. Wheezing. A cough that doesn’t go away.
These symptoms may sound like a cold, but for many, they’re the first signs of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). In fact, millions of people with COPD don’t even know they have it.
Though COPD is the third leading cause of death by disease in the U.S., it can be managed with the right care plan. That’s why it’s essential to get an expert diagnosis and start treatment as soon as possible. At the Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center, our board-certified allergists can help identify COPD and create a personalized care plan to stop your symptoms from getting worse.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) occurs when the lungs are exposed to irritants and become inflamed, narrowing the air passages, and making breathing difficult. The most common irritant responsible for COPD is cigarette smoke, which results in 85-90% of cases.
Over time, lungs that are exposed to irritants lose important elasticity for proper breathing, resulting in symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. These symptoms get progressively worse without treatment. In addition, COPD can lead to more serious complications, including lung cancer, heart disease, and depression.
There are three types of COPD, depending on what area of the lungs is damaged.
● Emphysema: Damage to the air sacs causes the small airways to collapse.
● Chronic bronchitis: Inflammation of the airways leads to narrowed tubes and mucus blockage.
● Refractory asthma: Also known as Asthma-COPD Overlap Syndrome (ACOS), this occurs when both asthma and COPD are diagnosed, resulting in more severe symptoms.
In all cases, inflammation of the lungs gets worse without treatment, making symptoms more severe. Regardless of the type of COPD, symptoms are the same in nature.
COPD symptoms typically don’t emerge until lung damage is significant. This can make early diagnosis and treatment difficult. Over time, these symptoms will get progressively worse, especially if smoking continues:
● Shortness of breath
● Persistent cough, especially with lots of mucus
● Chest tightness
● Frequent respiratory infections
● Blue-tinged fingernails
● Low energy levels
● Swollen ankles, feet or legs
● Unintentional weight loss
In addition, those with COPD may experience exacerbations, when symptoms become more severe than usual for a few days. These episodes may get worse without proper diagnosis and treatment.
In the majority of cases, COPD is caused by cigarette smoke. The longer you’ve smoked, the greater your risk for COPD. This also includes other types of smoking such as pipe, cigar, and marijuana smoke.
Exposure to secondhand smoke can also result in COPD symptoms, so it’s important to try and create a smoke-free home for your family members.
In addition, other irritants can put you at risk for COPD including:
● Workplace exposure to fumes, vapors, dust, and smoke
● Household fumes, including from cooking fires and poorly ventilated homes
● Air pollution
In rare cases, COPD can also rise from a genetic condition called Alpha-1 deficiency, which makes the lungs vulnerable to damage.
It’s also important to note that certain medical conditions may increase your risk of COPD, including a history of asthma or respiratory infections.
Finally, female smokers may have a higher risk of getting COPD because it’s commonly misdiagnosed in women. For this reason, it’s especially important for women with these symptoms to consult with an expert allergist.
To diagnose COPD, an allergist will discuss your symptoms and medical history, as well as your exposure to potential irritants. In particular, you’ll be asked if you currently smoke or have smoked in the past.
Next, you’ll typically undergo a spirometry test. Spirometry checks your lung function by measuring your airflow. Essentially, you blow air into a mouthpiece, which is attached by tubes to a small machine. The machine measures how much air and how fast you’re capable of blowing.
In addition, a doctor might perform tests to rule out other conditions, including X-rays, CT scans, arterial blood gas tests, and lab tests.
While there’s no cure for COPD, it can be managed in order to slow down symptoms. Typically, the first recommendation is to stop smoking. It’s the most effective way to reduce COPD complications, which is why you’ll likely be referred to a tobacco cessation program.
Other treatments are also available, including:
● Medications, such as bronchodilators and steroids
● Antibiotics to treat respiratory infections
● Oxygen therapy
● Pulmonary rehabilitation
● Surgery or a lung transplant
In addition, your allergist will discuss management techniques to prevent exacerbations from occurring. This may include avoiding exposure, keeping up healthy habits, getting an annual flu vaccination, and using a range of medications. Also, you may be referred to a pulmonologist for additional COPD care & treatment since they focus more on this.
Due to lung damage, COPD complications typically impact the lung and heart. These complications can be life-threatening, including:
● Severe respiratory infections
● Lung cancer
● Heart disease and heart attack
● High blood pressure
Because these complications can put your life at risk, it’s vital to start treatment to slow down symptoms.
COPD treatment is most effective when started early. If you have a cough that doesn’t go away or notice that you’re increasingly breathless, you should contact an allergist to rule out COPD &/or Asthma. By getting a proper diagnosis, you’ll be better prepared to stop symptoms from getting worse.
At the Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center, we’re strong advocates for early COPD diagnosis & work closely with our pulmonologist colleagues to help you in this process. Reach out to our team to get your lung function tested and find out whether you have COPD &/or Asthma today.