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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the term used to describe chronic lung conditions that cause severe shortness of breath and block the airways in your lungs. Usually it refers to long-lasting bronchitis or emphysema, but can also include asthmatic bronchitis (bronchial asthma). All of these diseases cause the air sacs and tubes in your lungs to become blocked.
With chronic bronchitis, a constant cough that produces mucus causes bronchial tubes to become inflamed. Eventually, scar tissue forms in the lungs, which don't allow in as much oxygen as you need. With emphysema, the walls of your lungs lose their elasticity -- they can't constrict to allow you to exhale. People with COPD can have either or both of these diseases.
The main risk factor for COPD is smoking. There is no cure for COPD, and while treatments may help control symptoms, they can't undo the damage to the lungs. The most important thing you can do to prevent COPD or to stop the damage from getting worse if you have it is to not smoke.
Signs and Symptoms
Smoking is the primary cause of COPD. It can also be caused by exposure to pollutants or toxic chemicals. One rare form of COPD is inherited (see Risk Factors).
Your doctor will listen to your chest for wheezes and decreased breath sounds. He or she will also look for signs that you are having trouble breathing, like flaring of your nostrils and contracting of the muscles between your ribs. Your respiratory rate -- number of breaths per minute -- may be high.
Your doctor may order tests to determine your lung function. The most common test is spirometery, where you'll be asked to blow into a tube connected to a machine called a spirometer. The spirometer measures how much air you have in your lungs, and can help detect COPD before your symptoms become obvious.
Your doctor may also order a chest x-ray will to look for over-expanded areas in the lungs; a CT scan to check the severity of your COPD; an examination of your sputum; or a blood test to measure the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.
Not smoking is the key to preventing COPD or stopping it from getting worse. Treatment varies depending on the severity of the disease. Your doctor may talk with you about lifestyle changes you can make to help relieve the symptoms of COPD, such as exercising and eating a healthy diet. Support groups or therapy (see Mind/Body Medicine) can help make it easier to live with the condition.
Quitting smoking is crucial. Other lifestyle measures you can take include dietary changes and exercise as described below.
People with COPD often lack essential nutrients in their bodies. Low levels of antioxidants and certain minerals including vitamins A, C, and E, potassium, magnesium, selenium, and zinc are associated with having COPD and may contribute to poor lung function. Eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is recommended to get the nutrients you need.
Although it may seem strange to recommend exercise when you have trouble breathing, exercise does help many people with COPD. By strengthening your legs and arms and improving endurance, you may be able to breathe better. Walking is a good exercise to build endurance. Talk to your doctor and respiratory therapist about how to build up slowly and safely. Participating in pulmonary rehabilitation is the best way to learn exercise and safe breathing techniques (see below).
There are breathing exercises -- for example, a pursed lip technique, breathing from the diaphragm, or using a breathing device called a spirometer twice a day -- that may help improve lung function. You can also learn which breathing and relaxation techniques work best when you are short of breath. Talk to your doctor about working with a respiratory therapist in order to learn such exercises.
None of the current medications for COPD has been shown to stop the long-term decline in lung function. However, there are several types of medications used to control symptoms.
Surgery and Other Procedures
When flare ups are severe, requiring hospitalization, you may need supplemental oxygen. At later stages of the disease, many people with COPD need continuous oxygen at home.
Lung reduction surgery is a procedure where a surgeon removes damaged parts of your lung to create more space for your lung to work better. A lung transplant is sometimes done for severe cases of COPD.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Because supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, they should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider. Be sure to talk to your physician about any supplements you are taking or considering taking.
The use of herbs is a time honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care and only under the supervision of a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of herbal medicine. Also, be sure to talk to your physician about any herbs that you are taking or considering taking.
Preliminary studies suggest that acupuncture may help relieve shortness of breath in those with COPD. More research is needed.
If you are trying to quit smoking, acupuncture can help you break the habit.
If you have COPD, you are prone to respiratory infections. Your health care provider will most likely tell you to get a flu shot every year and a pneumococcal vaccine once in your lifetime.
Prognosis and Complications
COPD is considered a chronic illness. Whatever damage there is to your lungs will not get better. If you stop smoking, the damage may not get worse. If you continue to smoke, however, your lungs and lung function will continue to deteriorate.
Potential complications of COPD include:
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Review Date: 9/29/2011
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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