COPD means Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It is a term that describes chronic (long-term) diseases where the airways (breathing tubes) in the lungs become swollen and partly blocked. COPD gets worse over time. It cannot be cured, but it can be treated and managed.
People with COPD usually have some or all the following symptoms:
- short of breath, especially during physical activity
- cough that lasts longer than three months
- coughing up mucus
- getting several infections such as the cold, flu or pneumonia and taking longer to recover
Speak with your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms.
Below are some of the main causes of COPD:
- smoking – the number one cause of COPD
- a rare genetic disorder called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency
- second-hand smoke
- air pollution (dust or chemicals)
- repeated lung infections during childhood
- severe asthma
- asthma combined with smoking
An accurate diagnosis is an important first step in managing COPD and only a healthcare provider can diagnose COPD. If you suspect you have symptoms of COPD, ask your healthcare provider about next steps.
A COPD diagnosis is generally made using a medical history, a physical examination, and breathing tests.
To help diagnose COPD, your healthcare provider will ask you many questions about your health history. Some of the questions may include:
- Do you currently smoke or have you smoked in the past?
- How often are you short of breath?
- What makes your shortness of breath worse?
- Do you cough? How long have you been coughing?
- Do you cough up sputum (phlegm, mucus)?
- Do you or does anyone in your family have a lung disease?
- Did you have a lot of lung infections when you were younger?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with a lung disease?
Breathing tests are the most reliable way to diagnose COPD. They include the following:
1. Spirometry is a simple breathing test that measures the speed and the amount of air you can blow out of your lungs.
2. Pulmonary Function Tests (PFTs) are a variety of tests that examine how well the lungs work. Spirometry is one of the tests. Other tests include:
○ Lung volume testing measures the volume of air in the lungs.
○ Diffusion capacity measures how much oxygen enters the bloodstream.
The tests are not painful, but they require you to use your maximal effort to blow out and breathe in air.
Spirometry is performed in many locations. Full pulmonary function tests are available in most larger cities. To inquire about a breathing test, speak to your healthcare provider to determine if you should have a breathing test and which test is best for you.
- Chest Radiography (x-ray): An x-ray will help the see if there is damage to your lungs and can show emphysema in your lungs. An x-ray alone is not enough to diagnose COPD; spirometry is the recommended test for a diagnosis.
- Oxygen testing: This painless test measures how much oxygen is in your blood (oxygen saturation). Your healthcare provider will clip a ‘probe’ to your finger to measure and monitor how much oxygen is in your blood. This alone does not diagnose COPD but could be one of the tests that assists with a diagnosis. If you want more information on how to get your oxygen tested, talk to your healthcare provider.
- Other: Your healthcare provider may order other tests such as a CT scan, blood work and other laboratory work. Blood work and/or other lab tests are done in combination with other tests for a proper diagnosis.
Medications can prevent or ease your COPD symptoms, like shortness of breath, cough, mucus build-up and tiredness. Different types of medications treat different symptoms.
To get the full benefit from your medication, you must follow the healthcare provider’s instructions and take the medications exactly as prescribed. Some medications need to be taken only when needed, like a quick-relief bronchodilator. Others are taken regularly. And some may be prescribed during a flare-up when symptoms are particularly bad. If you are unsure when or how to take your medications or use your devices, ask your doctor, respiratory educator, pharmacist, or other healthcare providers.
Keep a list of all the medications you take and show it to your healthcare provider and pharmacist, so they can check for drug interactions.
Exercise is good for everyone, but it is especially important for people with COPD. In fact, it is one of the most powerful tools to manage COPD, second only to quitting smoking.
Exercising can help you breathe better and give you more energy. Start by talking to your healthcare provider about exercise and for advice on developing a regular exercise routine.
To view a helpful daily home exercise video, visit Pulmonary Rehabilitation Daily Fitness Video.
A great way to learn how to exercise and learn how to manage your COPD in a supportive environment is to join a pulmonary rehabilitation program. It offers supervised exercise and education by trained healthcare professionals.
COPD Action Plan
It is helpful to have an action plan in case of emergency. Complete a personalized COPD Action Plan with your healthcare provider and refer to it if your symptoms worsen.
Warning signs of a COPD lung attack:
- chest pain
- blue lips or fingers
- extreme shortness of breath
Is this an emergency?
If you or someone you love experiences a COPD lung attack, call 911 and go to the nearest emergency department right away. Do not drive yourself. Take your fast-acting (rescue) inhaler as necessary on your way to the hospital.