Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Victoria Burke by Victoria Burke | Licensed since 2011
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This article was updated on: 12/21/2017

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According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a disease that makes it harder to breathe and gets worse over time. If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, or are at increased risk for developing the disease, here’s what you need to know about causes, symptoms and treatment of COPD.

What causes COPD?

According to the NHLBI, smoking is the number one cause of COPD, and most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) generally develops because of long-term exposure to lung irritants, which can damage the lungs and airways. In the U.S., the most common irritant is cigarette smoke, though other types of tobacco smoke can also cause COPD. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says between 10% and 20% of COPD sufferers have never smoked. Other irritants that may contribute to COPD include second-hand smoke, air pollution, and exposure to chemical fumes in the workplace.

According to the NHLBI, there is a rare genetic disorder known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency that may play a role in causing COPD, especially if you’re exposed to smoking or other lung irritants. Another reason for COPD, though uncommon, is for some people with asthma to develop COPD.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term that includes two main conditions: chronic bronchitis and emphysema, according to the NHLBI. Chronic bronchitis is a condition when the lining of the airways thickens with mucus, making it harder to breathe. Emphysema is a condition when the walls of many of the lung’s air sacs become damaged, which can lead to less oxygen intake. Most people with COPD have both conditions (and so COPD is a more accurate term), which results in less air flowing in and out of the airways.

What are some COPD symptoms?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the most common signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • Smoker’s cough, or a chronic cough that produces a lot of mucus
  • Wheezing, or a whistling or crackling sound when you breathe
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath (especially with physical exertion)

Please note that not everyone who has these common symptoms has COPD, and likewise, not everyone who has COPD has these symptoms. COPD symptoms may become more severe depending on how much the lungs have become damaged, and you may want to consult your doctor if you have shortness of breath during physical activity; weight loss; lower muscle endurance; or swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs.

  • According to the NHLBI, some severe symptoms require emergency care, and you should try to seek this care at a hospital (with the help of family or friends, if necessary) if: Your lips or fingernails are turning a blue or gray tinge (because of low blood oxygen levels).
  • You’re having trouble talking or catching your breath.
  • Your heart is beating very fast.
  • You’re having trouble staying mentally alert.
  • Your symptoms are still getting worse because the recommended treatment isn’t helping.

What is COPD treatment?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), there is no known cure for COPD, although there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can help slow its progression, prevent complications, and help you feel better.

According to the NHLBI, here are some lifestyle changes, treatments, and preventive measures for people with COPD:

  • Smoking cessation therapyQuitting smoking is the most important step you can take to treat COPD.
  • Bronchodilators: These inhaled medications work to open your airways to make breathing easier. If your COPD is more severe, your doctor may prescribe a combination of a bronchodilator and an inhaled steroid to help reduce inflammation in your airways.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: This broad program approach may include exercise, nutrition therapy, disease management treatment, and counseling sessions to help you stay active and improve your well-being.
  • Oxygen therapySome people with advanced COPD need oxygen, either through a mask or prongs placed in the nostrils. Oxygen therapy might help protect your heart and let you stay active, sleep more, and live longer.
  • Surgery: In extreme cases, where medications and therapy alone cannot relieve your symptoms, your doctor may recommend lung surgery or transplant.
  • Vaccines: People with COPD are at a higher risk for pneumonia and can have serious problems if they get the flu (influenza); your doctor may recommend you get annual flu shots and the pneumonia vaccine.

Do you have questions about Medicare coverage for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or Medicare plan options? I’m happy to help you find answers. You can also schedule a phone call or request an email with information prepared just for you by clicking one of the links below. To view a list of plan options in your area, click the Compare Plans button. You can get immediate assistance by calling me or one of our licensed insurance agents at 1-844-847-2660 (TTY users 711) Monday through Friday, 8AM to 8PM ET.

For more information about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), please see:

“What is COPD,” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), last modified July 31, 2013, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd

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