Living with COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) includes the lung diseases emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and many people who receive a COPD diagnosis have both types of lung damage at the same time. The lung damage associated with COPD is permanent, and no treatment can reverse the damage to the lung tissue that has already taken place. However, there are many treatments that can be used to prevent the disease from getting worse, relieve symptoms and help people cope with having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Most cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases are caused by smoking cigarettes and other tobacco products. It is possible to get COPD from inhaling other irritants over a long period of time, such as toxic chemicals, but the disease is much more common in smokers. People who smoke who receive a COPD diagnosis should stop smoking. Not quitting smoking if you have COPD will make your symptoms worse, increase your chance of respiratory failure and also increase your chance of developing lung cancer. If you can not quit smoking by yourself, help is available.

Patients with COPD may take medications to reduce their symptoms and possibly prevent complications involved with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Bronchodilators and steroids are available in inhaler form, like the inhalers used for asthma. Bronchodilators open up the airways, which are constricted in chronic bronchitis, and make it easier to breathe. Steroids have the same anti-inflammatory effect in the airways, but steroids generally have more side effects than bronchodilators, including decreasing bone density and predisposing the patient to high blood pressure. For this reason, steroids are used for cases of COPD with more severe inflammation, and they are usually used on a short-term basis to reduce serious side effects. Sometimes, oral anti-inflammatory medications may be used to control the lung inflammation involved with COPD. Antibiotic medications may also be used when a person with COPD has a respiratory infection. COPD patients are more likely to catch respiratory infections than healthy individuals without lung damage. People with COPD should get vaccinated against common communicable respiratory diseases, such as the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia.

Oxygen therapy is used for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease when a patient has low oxygen saturation in their blood. Oxygen is breathed from a canister of pure oxygen. The air we normally breathe is only about 21 percent oxygen, and the rest is nitrogen gas and a mix of other trace gases. Breathing pure oxygen may be necessary for people who can’t absorb as much oxygen into their blood when breathing air, like COPD patients. Oxygen therapy may improve symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle weakness, that are related to low oxygen saturation. Some COPD patients need to be on oxygen all of the time, and others may only need it while they are sleeping or for part of the day.

Surgery is usually used as a last-resort treatment for severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Surgical procedures used for treatment of COPD include a single lung transplant and lung volume reduction surgery. In lung volume reduction surgery, the most damaged parts of the lung tissue are removed; the goal of this surgery is to improve the efficiency of the lung tissue that is remaining by making more room in the chest. The single lung transplant may improve breathing, but donor organs are scarce, you must take immune system suppressing anti-rejection drugs for the rest of your life and the surgery may improve symptoms but doesn’t seem to prolong the life span of the patient.

Certain lifestyle changes can improve symptoms in COPD patients as well. Exercise, such as walking, can have the effect of improving breathing. If you are unsure which exercises are helpful for COPD and how much exercise you should be doing in your condition, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist. It may help to avoid certain things at home, including going into cold air, because it can increase airway constriction, coughing and wheezing. Air pollution due to things like fireplaces or bonfires should be avoided at home, because breathing in smoke will irritate your lungs. Eating a healthy diet can also have a beneficial effect. Some people with COPD lose weight; in this case, a nutritionist can help you learn what to eat to maintain a healthy weight. COPD patients who are overweight may find that losing weight can improve their breathing.

There are support groups for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and counselors who can work with patients and their families. Communication between the patient and their family is important, because a person with COPD may not be able to do the same activities that they used to be able to do before the onset of their respiratory symptoms.


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