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What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Causes & Treatment

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Causes & Treatment

Apria Editorial |

Untreated COPD increases the likelihood of developing cardiac abnormalities and experiencing a deterioration of respiratory infections. Though COPD progresses with time, it is still manageable with treatment.

In this comprehensive guide, we uncover what COPD is, including symptoms, causes, diagnosis & treatment solutions.

Progressive types of lung diseases are known collectively as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the most prevalent forms of these illnesses; however, the prevalence of coexisting conditions among COPD patients is high.

It is estimated that 30 million persons in the US suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Unfortunately, approximately 50% of those cases go will go undiagnosed.

Untreated COPD increases the likelihood of developing cardiac abnormalities and experiencing a deterioration of respiratory infections. Though COPD progresses with time, it is still manageable with treatment. The majority of patients with COPD can improve their symptom control and quality of life, as well as lower their risk of developing related conditions, with the help of appropriate treatment.

In this comprehensive guide, we uncover what COPD is, including symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment solutions.

What Does COPD Stand For?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) describes numerous different forms of chronic lung conditions.

What Is COPD?

COPD is a consequence of severe lung conditions, including lung diseases like chronic bronchitis or emphysema. If you've been diagnosed with COPD, it means you have developed one or more of these lung-damaging conditions or are experiencing multiple sets of related symptoms, resulting in severe breathing difficulty.

Some of the common conditions that result in COPD include:

  • Chronic Bronchitis: When you have chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tubes that supply and empty your lungs become inflamed and irritated. The result is an enlargement of the respiratory passages and a subsequent accumulation of mucus along their inner lining. This narrowing of the airway passages causes congestion, making it difficult to breathe in and exhale air. Cilia are tiny hair-like structures that line the interior of your bronchial passages and are responsible for clearing mucus. However, inflammation caused by chronic bronchitis or smoking causes harm, meaning the cilia cannot perform their function of clearing mucus.
  • Emphysema: This disease is diagnosed when small air sacs (alveoli) near the ends of the bronchial tubes become damaged and unable to function correctly. The air sacs are essential for taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide from the blood. However, emphysema's damage to the air sac walls hinders this process and makes breathing extremely difficult.
  • Refractory Asthma: A patient is considered refractory if they continue to suffer symptoms, have frequent asthma episodes, or have impaired lung function despite being on treatment for asthma. The use of oral steroids like prednisone may be necessary for managing asthma in people who have not responded to standard treatments.

    What Causes COPD?

    The most common cause of COPD is continuous contact with lung-damaging substances over time. This includes smoke from cigarettes, pipes, other tobacco products, or secondhand smoke. COPD is also aggravated by exposure to excessive dust, pollutants, or harsh chemical exposure in the workplace.

    Patients with asthma and heavy smokers are at higher risk of developing COPD. The risk also increases with age. Usually, individuals don't experience any symptoms until they're at least 40 years old.

    A significant contributor to COPD is smoking cigarettes, but other possible risk factors include:

    • Being 65 years old
    • Being assigned female at birth
    • Exposure to severe air pollution
    • Regular exposure to chemicals, dust, or fumes
    • Patients with a genetic disposition to alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AAT)
    • A history of frequent childhood respiratory illnesses

      How Is COPD Diagnosed?

      Misdiagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is prevalent. Many patients are not diagnosed until the condition is in its later stages.

      A medical professional will review the symptoms you've been experiencing, your medical history and family history, and any exposure you may have had to lung irritants, notably cigarette smoke. To make a proper diagnosis, your doctor may want to run a series of tests.

      • Lung Function Test: These tests determine how much air you can inhale and exhale, as well as whether your lungs are supplying enough oxygen to your blood. The most frequent test, known as spirometry, involves blowing into a wide tube attached to a small device to determine how much air your lungs can retain and how quickly you can push the air out. Other procedures include lung volume and diffusing capacity measurements and pulse oximetry.
      • Laboratory Analysis: Although laboratory tests are not used to diagnose COPD, they may help pinpoint the source of your symptoms and rule out other illnesses. Some cases of COPD have been linked to alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency; a genetic disorder that is diagnosed with a blood test.
      • X-ray: Emphysema, one of the leading causes of COPD, can be detected using a chest x-ray. An x-ray may also rule out other lung or cardiac complications.
      • CT/ CAT Scan: A CT scan of your lungs can identify emphysema and assess whether you might benefit from COPD surgery. Lung cancer is also detected with CT scans.

        What Are The Symptoms Of COPD?

        Breathing is impaired by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Moderate COPD symptoms, such as coughing fits and shortness of breath, may be present initially. However, consistently experiencing symptoms might make it hard to breathe as the disease advances.

        Wheezing, chest tightness and excessive sputum production are all possible signs of COPD. In the advanced stages of COPD, these symptoms may present themselves in acute, exacerbated flare-ups.

        Initial symptoms: COPD often begins with very moderate symptoms, often confused for a common cold. Early symptoms of COPD include:

        • Slight but persistent cough
        • Frequent throat clearing, most noticeable first thing in the morning
        • Shortness of breath, especially after activity

          Progressive Symptoms: A person's symptoms may become more noticeable and severe with time. Damage to the lungs may cause the following symptoms:

          • Wheezing, or labored breathing, particularly during exhale
          • Shortness of breath after moderate physical activity, like going up a flight of stairs
          • Congestion in the chest, a persistent hacking cough, with or without phlegm production
          • Suffering from recurrent respiratory illnesses such as colds and flu.
          • Extreme fatigue
          • Weightloss
          • Swelling in the upper and lower limbs

              Medical attention must be sought immediately whenever any of the following symptoms present themselves:

              • Blue or gray fingernails or lips indicate low blood oxygen levels
              • Difficulty breathing or speaking
              • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or a rapid heartbeat

                What Are The Stages Of COPD?

                Early detection is the key to reducing the severity of COPD and preventing serious complications. The severity of COPD is evaluated using the GOLD Criteria of COPD staging. This condition may occur in one of four COPD stages:

                • Mild
                • Moderate
                • Severe
                • Very severe

                  The acronym GOLD refers to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. In 1997 the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (part of the NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) collaborated to establish the GOLD grading system for managing COPD.

                  Your doctor will use the results of a spirometry test or another diagnostics method to establish which stage of COPD you are in. Spirometry evaluates lung function by monitoring the volume, ease, and speed of exhaled air.

                  Your symptoms and the frequency of their flare-ups will also be taken into account.

                  As COPD is a progressive lung disease, its symptoms and the risk of consequences, including heart disease, pulmonary hypertension, and lung cancer, increase with time.

                  What Is COPD Exacerbation?

                  A chronic flare-up of your COPD symptoms is known as a COPD exacerbation. A lung infection is a common trigger for an exacerbation, although, in some situations, the underlying cause cannot be determined. Some individuals find their health deteriorates from irritation and swelling of their lungs during and after an exacerbation, and it can take a month or more for them to fully recover. By being aware of the warning signs of an exacerbation, you can seek treatment sooner, reduce the severity of the episode, and limit its duration.

                  Infection of the lungs or airways is the leading cause of exacerbations (breathing tubes). Many times a virus is to blame, although bacteria and other microorganisms, environmental pollutants, and allergies can also contribute to exacerbation.

                  Exacerbations might occur suddenly, characterized by a chronic reoccurrence of your usual COPD symptoms, such as coughing fits and labored breathing. A common indicator of an exacerbation is a change in sputum color ‒ from clear to colored green, brown or deep yellow.

                  How Is COPD Treated?

                  Although there is currently no known cure for COPD, it is treatable. Progression can be slowed by working with your doctor to develop a treatment plan and continuing to engage in healthy behaviors like:

                  • Minimizing cigarette smoke
                  • Exercising frequently
                  • Maintaining a nutritious diet
                  • Getting an annual flu shot

                    Individuals with COPD sometimes share common clinical characteristics or respond similarly to different treatments. Therefore, your doctor and healthcare team will collaborate with you to create a personalized strategy for the treatment of COPD based on your symptoms and requirements.

                    COPD treatment includes:


                    Different drugs are used to treat various COPD-related symptoms and consequences. Some prescriptions are administered regularly, and others on an as-needed basis.

                    • Bronchodilators: Inhalers are the most common delivery method for bronchodilators, which are medicines used to ease tension in the airway's smooth muscle lining and are often the first line of defense for treating COPD. You may require a long-acting bronchodilator for daily use, a short-acting bronchodilator that you take before activities, or both, depending on the severity of your illness.
                    • Steroids: Exacerbations can be avoided, and inflammation in the airways can be reduced using oral or inhaled steroid medicines.
                    • Antibiotics: Symptoms of COPD may be worsened by respiratory infections such as acute bronchitis, pneumonia, and the flu. Antibiotics help treat the spread of these infections, thereby alleviating the symptoms of COPD.

                      Lung Therapy

                      In cases of moderate or severe COPD, doctors often resort to the following treatments:

                      • Therapeutic Oxygen: Oxygen therapy is the only treatment for COPD that has been shown to increase life expectancy while also improving quality of life. Consult with your medical provider to discuss your condition and potential treatments. Lightweight, portable units are available, allowing you to continue receiving oxygen as you go about your day.

                        For some patients, oxygen is only needed before or after physical activity; for others, continual oxygen is prescribed depending on their requirements.

                        • Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Usually, participants in these programs will receive guidance on how to exercise effectively and maintain a balanced diet and education on managing and monitoring COPD. Treatment programs also include:
                            • Breathing strategies
                            • Energy-conserving techniques
                            • Psychological and emotional support

                        Engaging in pulmonary rehabilitation following hospitalization for severe COPD can decrease the likelihood of future hospitalizations, enhance the patient's capacity to engage in daily activities, and extend the patient's life expectancy.

                        Respiratory Devices

                        Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and Bilevel-positive airway pressure (BiPAP) therapy, may be beneficial for home and clinical use for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease treatment. Patients at risk for developing acute respiratory failure and requiring hospitalization may benefit from using noninvasive ventilation and a mask to enhance breathing and reduce carbon dioxide retention. Further study is required to find the most effective applications of this treatment.


                        People experiencing severe COPD who do not respond well to medications are candidates for surgery. Surgical procedures include:

                        • Volume Reduction: During this procedure, the surgeon will remove microscopic wedges of damaged lung tissue from your upper lungs. This frees up more room in the chest, allowing the diaphragm to perform its function more effectively and the remaining healthy lung tissue to grow. This procedure has the potential to enhance a patient’s well-being and extend life expectancy with COPD.
                        • Endoscopic Lung Volume Reduction: This is a minimally invasive surgery to treat COPD. Surgeons implant a small one-way endobronchial valve in the lung allowing the most damaged tissue to contract, making room for the healthy region of the lung to grow and function normally.
                        • Bullectomy: Damage to the lining of the air sacs (alveoli) causes the formation of large air gaps (bullae) in the lungs. As they grow, these bullae can become so large that they make it difficult to breathe. To facilitate better breathing, medical professionals perform a bullectomy, in which bullae are surgically removed from the lungs.

                        How To Prevent COPD?

                        Inflammation caused by tobacco smoke reduces airflow. Smoke also destroys cilia, so they can't perform their function of clearing mucus and trapped particles from the lungs. The number one recommendation for the prevention of COPD is to stop smoking.

                        Consult your medical professional about available services and products that can assist you in stopping smoking. Avoid being around people who are smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, and remember that even the smoke from these products may be harmful.

                        If you live or work in an area with high dust, chemicals, or air pollutants, ensure you wear appropriate protective masks.

                        Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) FAQ

                        Can COPD cause severe headaches?

                        COPD-related headaches result from insufficient oxygen reaching the brain and excess carbon dioxide in the blood. Because of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood, while sleeping, severe COPD headaches often manifest upon waking in the morning. If you have COPD and wake up with a headache, this is an indicator that you might also be suffering from sleep apnea.

                        Is a humidifier good for COPD?

                        Data suggests that the correct use of a humidifier can help keep the air at the ideal level of moisture (between 30% and 50%), which is beneficial for everyone, but especially those with chronic lung disease like COPD. It facilitates easier breathing, less nasal irritation, and more effective phlegm expulsion during coughing.

                        Our recommendation: Fisher & Paykel myAIRVO™ 2 In-Home Humidified High Flow Therapy System

                        Is air conditioning good for COPD?

                        Research suggests the effects of heat on patients with COPD corroborate the health benefits of breathing in cooler air. Overexposure to heat has been linked to an increased risk of exacerbations and hospitalizations, as well as short-term and long-term symptoms.

                        Being overweight, aging, or having a preexisting condition like diabetes or heart disease may all make you more susceptible to the adverse health effects of prolonged exposure to high temperatures. In addition, these conditions can aggravate the negative effects of the summer heat on those with COPD.

                        Ensure your home air conditioner is well-maintained and operating for the upcoming summer months.

                        What painkillers can I take with COPD?

                        Up to 60% of people with COPD report experiencing pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen (Advil) and aspirin, may be prescribed by doctors. When these are ineffective, opioids like morphine and codeine may be prescribed.

                        Manage, Monitor, And Enhance Your Health To Slow The Progression Of COPD

                        No one should have to struggle to breathe after a COPD diagnosis; those experiencing chronic lung diseases and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases may benefit from our extensive range of respiratory solutions. ApriaHome sources and supplies premium quality home respiratory services and durable home medical equipment. Our goal is to help you make the most of every day by helping you manage, monitor, and prolong your COPD progression from the comfort of your own home. Browse our range of respiratory, CPAP, & pulse oximetry solutions today.

                        Looking for advice? Our helpful agents are on call at (800) 780-1508 between 8:00 am - 10:00 pm EST daily. Get in touch today.


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