Understanding COPD

You may never have hard of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) but you are certainly familiar with emphysema and bronchitis. These diseases are the two most famous chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and both seem to have it in for women. Chronic bronchitis hits women at twice the rate it does men, and the incidence of emphysema is steadily rising in women while it is declining in men.


COPD is any inflammatory lung disease that causes airflow from the lungs to be blocked in some way. The most common cause is cigarette smoking, but long-term exposure to any particulate matter or irritating gases can also be responsible. It is not uncommon for people exposed to cooking/heating fumes in the homes of developing countries to develop COPD.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Wheezing
  • A chronic cough that may produce mucus
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds
  • Chest tightness
  • Swelling in ankles, feet or legs
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss, in later stages

COPD develops slowly with age, and along the journey those who have it are more likely to suffer from other respiratory infections such as colds, the flu and pneumonia. High blood pressure within lung arteries, also known as pulmonary hypertension, is another hallmark.

There are several tests that your doctor can schedule to determine that you have COPD and not a less severe lung disease – COPD is frequently misdiagnosed.

The most common diagnostic tool is a spirometer, a machine that can even accurately diagnose COPD before you are symptomatic. Either a chest X-ray or CT scan may determine emphysema, and an arterial blood gas analysis will give your doctor a picture of how well your lungs are bringing oxygen into your blood and removing carbon dioxide.

COPD sufferers are at a higher risk to develop heart disease and lung cancer. A COPD diagnosis is not a death sentence, however. Properly managed, COPD patients can have a high quality of life and good symptom control.

If you are diagnosed with COPD, there are a number of treatments available, depending upon the specific pulmonary problem. These include a variety of inhaler-delivered medications which can help relieve coughing and shortness of breath, relax muscles around your airways to make breathing easier. Oxygen therapy, often involving external devices used to deliver air to your lungs, may be necessary.


Sources: The Mayo Clinic