Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is a disease that can go undetected for years.
Although millions of Americans know they have the disease, millions more might not, according to the American Lung Association.
“It’s probably the most common disease that we see in the office and the hospital,” said Dr. Miroslav B. Zotovic, a pulmonologist with Aiken Pulmonary Associates with Dr. Nicholas Sanito.
What is COPD?
COPD doesn’t refer to just one condition but rather a collection of progressive lung diseases.
The two main forms are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
“Emphysema causes large dilated air spaces that trap air in the lungs. These are best seen on a CAT scan of the thorax,” said Dr. Thomas Dillard, a pulmonologist with Augusta University Medical Center. “Chronic bronchitis causes copious increase in mucous production. These patients have productive cough with phlegm.”
Other types of COPD are non-reversible asthma and certain kinds of bronchiectasis, according to the COPD Foundation.
The trait that classifies these conditions as COPD is that they all make it difficult for the person to breath.
The most common way people develop COPD is by smoking.
“The toxins in cigarette smoke weaken your lungs’ defense against infections, narrow air passages, cause swelling in air tubes and destroy air sacs – all contributing factors for COPD,” the American Lung Association said.
However, not everyone who smokes will get COPD, just as nonsmokers can develop the condition.
“We do not all have the same lung capacity,” said Zotovic. “We do not have the same way we can lose the lung function over the years. This influences who is going to develop COPD, chronic obstructive lung disease, during their adult life and influences who is going to present (symptoms) sooner or later in life.”
Long-term exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke and chemicals are other causes, according to Dillard.
“Most of the time symptoms present when the lung functions are decreasing,” Zotovic said.
Shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness are signs of COPD.
A way to detect COPD is through a spirometry.
“Spirometry is a simple test of how well your lungs work. For this test, you blow air into a mouthpiece and tubing attached to a small machine. The machine measures the amount of air you blow out and how fast you can blow it,” the American Lung Association said.
Treatment options include medications, oxygen therapy and, in more extreme cases, surgery.
“We all lose the lung function whether we smoked or we don’t smoke,” said Zotovic. “People who smoke have more active decline. … The most important thing with treatment is to quit smoking because it will prevent inevitable decline, and this is shown that it prolongs life.”