Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive disease that makes breathing difficult. COPD is a general term describing several progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. COPD is usually symptom free at first; but as the lung damage increases, symptoms begin to appear and then worsen over time. Symptoms of COPD may include coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. COPD is caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants such as cigarette smoke and pollutants as well as genetic factors, including alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency.
With COPD, less air flows in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following: the airways and air sacs of the lungs lose their elastic quality, the walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed, the walls of the airways become thick and inflamed, and/or the airways make more mucus than usual, which can clog them. COPD may be diagnosed using a noninvasive breathing test called spirometry. Spirometry can detect COPD before symptoms begin, and your doctor may advise you to be screened regularly for COPD if you have a history of smoking, exposure to toxins, fumes or pollutants or have a genetic predisposition to or family history of COPD. Your physician may order other tests to rule out other lung conditions and to determine the best treatment for your stage of COPD. Treatment includes medications and lung therapy. Surgery is sometimes necessary for those with severe emphysema. Although there is currently no cure for COPD, treatments and lifestyle changes can help patients feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with COPD, talk with your doctor about the most current treatment options.