What Exactly is COPD?

Men's Health, Women's Health Steward Health Care

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common preventable and treatable disease.  The condition is characterized by decreased airflow and difficulty breathing.  The condition is usually progressive and often associated with an increased sensitivity in the airways and the lungs to noxious particles or gases like cigarette smoke, dust and automobile exhaust.

COPD affects more than 5 percent of the population and is the third ranked cause of death in the U.S.  

Many people suffering with COPD often require frequent health care visits and hospitalizations.  To avoid hospitalizations and improve quality of life, it is important to diagnose and then appropriately manage COPD on a daily basis.

How is COPD diagnosed?

A physician will recommend a pulmonary function test to measure the amount of the airflow limitation a patient has, assess the effectiveness of medications and follow disease progression.  

When evaluating a patient for possible COPD, the pulmonary function test, or spirometry, will help determine whether a patient has limited airflow and whether it is partially or fully reversible.  A pulmonary function test measures a patient’s lung function, allowing a physician to compare the forced expiratory volume in one second (the amount of air you can exhale in one second) and the lungs’ forced vital capacity (the amount of air you can exhale in total) to determine the severity of the COPD.  Airflow limitation that is irreversible or only partially reversible with medications, such as bronchodilators, suggests COPD rather than asthma.

Other aspects of the disease a physician will consider include the severity of a patient’s symptoms, the risk of exacerbations and the presence of other risk factors (e.g., smoking and excessive weight), all of which can dramatically impact a patient’s particular condition and prognosis.

Treatments for COPD

Every patient with COPD who smokes should discuss how to quit smoking with his or her physician.  Often a leading cause of COPD, continued smoking only irritates already damaged airways making symptoms worse.   

Treatment with medications called bronchodilators are extremely important for patients with COPD. Bronchodilators will usually improve symptoms, exercise capacity and improve airflow by opening airways and restoring more normal breathing.

Inhaled corticosteroids reduce inflammation associated with COPD, and they have been shown to decrease exacerbations and modestly slow the progression of respiratory symptoms, but they appear to have little impact on lung function and mortality.

Inhaled glucocorticoids may be combined with bronchodilator therapy.  Systemic glucocorticoids may be used to treat acute COPD exacerbations, however chronic use can have significant adverse effects and has been associated with increased morbidity and mortality.

The flu and pneumonia will both make a case of COPD worse.  Patients suffering with COPD should consider the benefits of routine pneumococcal and influenza vaccinations to prevent infections.

Patients with more advanced COPD often have chronically low blood oxygen levels, also known as hypoxemia.  Evaluation and diagnosis for hypoxemia is very important, because long-term oxygen therapy has been shown to improve patients’ quality of life and survival.

While there is no permanent cure for COPD, comprehensive pulmonary rehabilitation programs can improve exercise capacity, decrease breathing discomfort, improve quality of life and decrease health care utilization among patients with COPD.

To find a doctor or schedule an appointment visit Steward DoctorFinder™ or call 1-800-488-5959.

To find a doctor or schedule an appointment, visit Steward DoctorFinder™.