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Do You Have COPD? How to Tell

man clutching chest

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called COPD, is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases, primarily including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema is a lung condition in which the air sacs (alveoli) may be collapsed, destroyed, narrowed, overinflated and stretched. Over-inflation of the air sacs is a result of a breakdown of the alveoli walls, which causes a decrease in respiratory function and breathlessness. Damage to the air sacs can't be fixed. It causes permanent holes in the lower lung tissue. Emphysema occurs very slowly over time and is most often caused by smoking. Other causes of emphysema include exposure to air pollution (such as chemical fumes, dust and other substances), as well as Irritating fumes and dusts at the workplace.There is also a rare, inherited form of pulmonary emphysema.

In bronchitis, the airways (known as bronchi) in the lungs become inflamed, triggering an increase in mucus and other changes. Common symptoms can include back and muscle pain, a cough (known as “smoker’s cough”), chest soreness, fatigue and wheezing. Chronic bronchitis occurs when long-term inflammation causes an overproduction of mucus, along with chronic coughing and wheezing. Usually, chronic bronchitis is caused by smoking or poor air quality.

If you have any of these symptoms, be sure to talk about it with your primary care provider (PCP).

Get an Accurate Diagnosis

Most people with COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema, but in varying degrees. Whether you suffer from constant coughing and wheezing, difficulty breathing or chest tightness, it’s critical to see a pulmonary specialist for an accurate diagnosis to begin treatment quickly. While COPD cannot be cured, it is possible to slow the rate of lung function loss.

Living with COPD can be a challenge, especially as the disease progresses. To help manage symptoms, a pulmonary rehabilitation team helps patients:

  • Manage COPD medications
  • Improve their breathing with respiratory treatments
  • Obtain respiratory equipment and portable oxygen
  • Boost their independence with activities of daily living
  • Improve physical conditioning and endurance through exercise
  • Manage stress and get emotional support
  • Quit smoking
  • Learn healthy eating habits
  • Get counseling and training tools for themselves and their families

Advanced Options for COPD

Because COPD is a progressive disease, pulmonary specialists check a patient’s progress regularly. If symptoms worsen, they are prepared with advanced COPD treatment options. These may include:

  • Oxygen Therapy - COPD may cause low oxygen levels, so oxygen is delivered through nasal prongs or a mask. It can be done on an as-needed basis, or all the time.
  • Surgery - Our pulmonary surgery team performs specialized procedures for COPD patients who do not respond to medication and treatment. Surgery may include a bullectomy, lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) or a lung transplant.
    • Bullectomy: Bullae are large spaces of air that form in the lungs if the walls of your air sacs are destroyed. When these air spaces become large enough, they interfere with breathing. A bullectomy removes bullae and improves the ability to breathe. 
    • LVRS is a procedure to remove damaged lung tissue and requires a highly skilled surgical team. It’s a viable option for only a small number of patients with advanced emphysema, but for these few, it can offer dramatic benefit.
    • Lung transplant: For critical patients, our surgical team may recommend removing the damaged lung and replacing it with a healthy lung from a donor.

Steven Baldridge, RN, is a staff educator at University Hospitals Samaritan Medical Center

Related Links

Test your knowledge on quitting smoking with our quiz.

Learn more about treatment for COPD at University Hospitals

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