YOU and Your Doctor Are Your Medical Team – February 2024

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. There are two main types/forms of COPD:  Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common conditions that contribute to COPD. These two conditions usually occur together and can vary in severity among individuals with COPD. Most people with COPD have a combination of both conditions. Emphysema: is a condition in which the alveoli at the end of the smallest air passages (bronchioles) of the lungs are destroyed as a result of damaging exposure to cigarette smoke and other irritating gases and particulate matter. Chronic bronchitis: is inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. It’s characterized by daily cough and mucus (sputum) production.

Asthma and COPD are similar in many ways, including similar symptoms like shortness of breath and blocked airflow. However, COPD is chronic and progressive. Asthma is often set off by allergens. COPD’s main cause is smoking.  People with asthma don’t automatically develop COPD. People with COPD don’t always have asthma, but it’s possible to have both respiratory conditions.

The primary cause of COPD is smoking. But not all smokers develop the disease. You may be at higher risk if you are: female, over the age of 65, have been exposed to air pollution, have worked with chemicals, dust or fumes, have alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AAT), a genetic risk factor for COPD, and had many respiratory infections during childhood.

COPD symptoms often don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred. Signs may include: shortness of breath, especially during physical activities, wheezing, chest tightness, a chronic cough that may produce mucus (sputum) that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish, frequent respiratory infections, lack of energy, unintended weight loss, and/or swelling in ankles, feet or legs. People with COPD are also likely to experience episodes called exacerbations, during which their symptoms become worse than the usual day-to-day variation and persist for at least several days.

Things you can do when dealing with COPD: “pace yourself” in terms of your daily activities/exercise, do not exert yourself to the point of fatigue, learn to control your breathing, use your medications as prescribed, eat a balance healthy diet, and see your doctor before symptoms really increase.

When to see a doctor: shortness of breath has become worse or occurs more often, unable to walk as far as you usually could, you need more pillows or have to sit up to sleep, feel more tired because you’re working harder to breathe, need breathing treatments or inhalers more often than usual, wake up short of breath more than once a night, Sputum (mucus) changes: in color [yellow-green], presence of blood, odor,  thickness or amount, more mucus than usual or more than you’re able to cough out, more coughing or wheezing, new/worse swelling in your ankles, feet  and doesn’t go away after a night’s sleep with your feet up, fever, especially with cold or flu symptoms, and/or unexplained, extreme fatigue or weakness that lasts for more than a day.

Seek immediate medical care if you can’t catch your breath, if you experience severe blueness of your lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis) or a rapid heartbeat, or if you feel “foggy” and have trouble concentrating. If you have any of these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider right away, even if you don’t feel sick.

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Jackie Kellum

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