What Is COPD and How Is It Treated?

November 7, 2016

Advertisements about COPD are prevalent in the media. Many people, however, may not know much about it, prompting November to be declared National COPD Awareness Month.

COPD, which can affect people of all ages, is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe and is caused by damage to the lungs over many years.

The leading cause of COPD is smoking. Other contributing factors may be from exposure to lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemicals and dust in the environment. It also can be caused by some genetic disorders.

Mercy Carthage Cardiopulmonary Service Department can aid physicians in the diagnosis and treatment of COPD and other respiratory ailments, according to Chalaine Bell, department manager and a registered respiratory care practitioner.

While there are other secondary diseases that lead to COPD, two of the most common are chronic bronchitis and emphysema:

  • Chronic bronchitis. In chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes) get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. This can narrow or block the airways, making it hard to breathe.
  • Emphysema. In a healthy person, tiny air sacs in the lungs are like balloons. When a person breathes in and out, they get bigger and smaller to move air through the lungs.
Sara Dobkins, left, and Chalaine Bell

Sara Dobkins, left, and Chalaine Bell

With emphysema, these air sacs are damaged and lose their stretch. Less air gets in and out of the lungs, which makes one feel short of breath.

COPD increases over time because damage to the lungs can’t be undone. As it worsens, shortness of breath can occur even when doing simple things like getting dressed or fixing a meal.

Breathing tobacco smoke irritates the airways and destroys the stretchy fibers in the lungs. Secondhand smoke also may damage the lungs.

It usually takes many years for lung damage to start causing symptoms, so COPD is most common in people who are older than 60. Someone also may be more likely to get COPD as a result of serious lung infections as a child.

The main symptoms:

  • A long-lasting (chronic) cough
  • Mucus that comes up when coughing
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse during exercise

To find out if someone has COPD, a doctor will:

  • Do a physical exam and listen to the lungs
  • Ask questions about past health
  • Have the patient perform a breathing test known as pulmonary function test, which will show how well the lungs work
  • Do chest X-rays and other tests to help rule out other problems that could be causing symptoms

If there is a chance someone has COPD, it’s important to find out and to take steps to slow damage to the lungs. The best way to slow COPD is to practice good lung health.

A doctor can prescribe treatments or medicines that may help manage symptoms, said Sara Dobkins, a respiratory care practitioner at Mercy Carthage. In time, the patient may need to use oxygen some or most of the time.

A lung (pulmonary) rehab program can help someone manage the disease. It’s important to help educate patients about their lung health and teach them how to participate and/or improve their daily living activities, which improve the quality of their life.

For more information on cardiopulmonary services at Mercy Hospital Carthage on the McCune-Brooks Campus, call 417-359-1302.

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