Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of progressive lung diseases. Mostly, these are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Most people with COPD have both of these conditions.
Emphysema slowly destroys air sacs in your lungs, which interferes with outward air flow. Bronchitis causes inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which allows mucus to build up.
COPD makes it harder to breathe. Symptoms may be mild at first, beginning with coughing and shortness of breath. As it progresses, it can become increasingly difficult to breathe.
Symptoms of COPD:
Symptoms of COPD can be quite mild. You might be inclined to dismiss them as a cold.
Early symptoms include:
- Occasional shortness of breath, especially after exercise
- Mild but recurrent cough
- Needing to clear your throat often, especially first thing in the morning
Symptoms can get progressively worse and harder to ignore. As the lungs become more damaged, you may experience:
- Shortness of breath, after even mild exercise such as walking up a flight of stairs
- Wheezing, or noisy breathing
- Chest tightness
- Chronic cough, with or without mucus
- Need to clear mucus from your lungs every day
- Frequent colds, flu, or other respiratory infections
- Lack of energy
In later stages of COPD, symptoms may also include:
- Swelling of the feet, ankles, or legs
- Weight loss
The single biggest cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. About 90 percent of people who have COPD are smokers or former smokers. Among smokers, 20 to 30 percent develop COPD. Many others develop lung conditions or have reduced lung function.
Most of the people who has COPD are over 40 years old and have at least some history of smoking. The longer you smoke, the greater your risk of COPD is. In addition to cigarette smoke, cigar smoke, pipe smoke, and second-hand smoke can cause COPD. Your risk of COPD is even greater if you suffer from asthma and smoke.
Long-term exposure to air pollution and inhaling dust can also cause COPD.COPD isn’t contagious.
There’s no single test for COPD. Diagnosis is based on symptoms, a physical exam, and test results.
When you visit the doctor, be sure to mention all of your symptoms. Tell your doctor if:
- You’re a smoker, or have smoked in the past
- You’re exposed to lung irritants on the job
- You’re exposed to a lot of second-hand smoke
- There’s a family history of COPD
- You have asthma or other respiratory conditions
- You take over-the-counter or prescription medications
During the physical exam, your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs as you breathe. Based on all this information, your doctor may order some of these tests to get a more complete picture:
- A spirometry is a non-invasive test to assess lung function. During the test, you’ll take a deep breath and then blow into a tube connected to the spirometer.
- Imaging tests include a chest X-ray or CT scan. These images can provide a detailed look at your lungs, blood vessels, and heart.
- An arterial blood gas test involves taking a blood sample from an artery to measure your blood oxygen levels.