Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is actually a group of lung diseases – rather than a specific disorder – encompassing such diseases as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. All of the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases involve a restriction of airflow to the lungs and varying degrees of airway inflammation, air sac enlargement and lung tissue destruction.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and both are chiefly caused by smoking. When a person smokes, the lungs become inflamed and the air sacs are damaged by tar and nicotine. It is estimated that approximately 20% of smokers will eventually develop some form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, though it usually happens in advanced years of life. Sometimes the disease is severe enough to be immediately life threatening, while other cases are mild.

In some instances, COPD can be caused by second-hand smoke or working or living in an intensely polluted environment. Breathing toxic or harmful air that can abrade the lungs might eventually lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The only way to completely avoid contracting COPD is to get out of situations that might be harmful to your lungs. If you know that your home or work environment might be having adverse affects to your body, your best bet is to change your living conditions. If this isn’t possible, visit your doctor for check-ups every six months to monitor your health and the health of your lungs.

The earliest symptoms of COPD are a shortness of breath (called dyspnea) that does not go away after several weeks, intense wheezing fits, the inability to sustain high levels of activity and coughing with or without phlegm. Since these symptoms are also common in other, less serious disorders, many people have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years without knowing it. Since quick treatment is imperative, anyone experiencing these symptoms should see their doctor as quickly as possible.

The initial doctor’s visit will usually be a physical examination during which the physician will look for evidence of labored breathing, nostril flaring and pursed lips during exhalation. Later, he will do an x-ray upon which he will search for intercostal retraction (contraction of the muscles between the ribs while exhaling) and possibly an over-expanded lung. He will ask about your medical history, your home and work conditions, and whether or not you smoke (and how often).

CT scans may begin to show the early signs of emphysema.

The physician will also want to take an arterial blood gas – a blood sample taken from an artery – to search for levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. A patient with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will exhibit low levels of oxygen and elevated levels of carbon dioxide.

The treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are very simple, but only serve to treat the symptoms. The patient must stop smoking if he or she hopes to overcome any of the symptoms at all. In many cases, the patient will be given an inhaler (a bronchilator) that will be used to dilate the airways, and sometimes theophyline is prescribed. In extreme cases, the patient will have to take steroids in the form of an inhaler, and possibly oral or intravenous steroids.

Antibiotics are used to treat auxiliary symptoms in patients who experience infections, since infections can intensify the symptoms and possibly speed up the spread of the disease. In the worst cases, lung transplants are considered.

Currently, research analysts are working on a lung volume reduction surgery that might revolutionize the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Until that surgery is perfected and considered safe for public use, however, there is very little that physicians can do for affected patients.

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