Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is a classification of lung disease that causes difficulty breathing. COPD is most often a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Bronchitis causes the bronchial tubes, which carry air to the lungs, to become inflamed and to fill with mucus, leading to restricted breathing. Emphysema damages the air sacs in the lungs, which, in a healthy person, inflate with inhalation, then deflate when the person exhales. Emphysema causes these air sacs to lose some elasticity, making a patient feel constantly short of breath. These are both common conditions in smokers, though non-smokers may also develop these conditions.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease has different levels or stages of severity. The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) classifications are the primary method doctors use for determining the severity of an individual case. The GOLD system uses Pulmonary Function Tests to determine the obstruction of a person’s breathing. The most common pulmonary function test involves a person forcefully blowing air out of his or her lungs. A person with healthy lungs can most often force most air out of the lungs in a second. Due to the damage in their lungs, people with COPD may need more time to exhale most of the air. The results of pulmonary function tests help determine which of four stages of COPD a patient may be experiencing: Stage I (mild), Stage II (moderate), Stage III (Severe) or Stage IV (Very Severe).
The GOLD classification system is not precise enough to determine symptoms or life expectancy. It may, however, be enough to give patients a very general idea of what they may be in for. Stage I COPD is often so mild that the patient may not even be aware of a problem. When diagnosed in this stage, symptoms may be treated and steps may be taken to slow the progression of the disease. A rescue inhaler may be prescribed to ease mild instances of shortness of breath. By Stage II, symptoms are more prominent. A longer-lasting inhaler may be prescribed, and the patient may start pulmonary rehabilitation, a series of treatments designed to improve lung function. By Stage III, the patient will likely notice the disease having an impact on daily life, with symptoms increasing in severity and significantly limiting physical activity. Patients at this stage are often prescribed steroid inhalers, which may not provide relief but may slow the progression of symptoms. Stage IV often leads to extreme limitations. Patients in this degree of COPD often require oxygen therapy. At no stage is COPD curable, but the earlier it is detected, the better chance the patient has of living a long, comfortable life.