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COPD: The Silent Killer

Updated on February 29, 2012

COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease results in a range of conditions that include difficulty in breathing, long term coughing and destruction of the functioning of the lungs over time. The air passages that move air to and from the lungs become damaged due to respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. As the tissue thickens and loses elasticity the air passages narrow and breathing becomes more difficult. The condition becomes progressively more pronounced over time resulting in increasing breathing difficulties as the individual ages.

COPD Statistics

  • There were 9.9 million adults diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in the United States in 2011
  • There are approximately 4.3 million noninstitutionalized adults in the United States that are currently diagnosed with emphysema
  • In 2006-2007 there were 6.1 million visits to an emergency room, hospital outpatient or doctor's office due to COPD and associated conditions
  • The number of patients in nursing homes with COPD is approximately 190,000 or 13% of the population
  • There are approximately 122,448 deaths per year due to chronic lower respiratory diseases excluding asthma but including COPD
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there are more than 64 million people with COPD worldwide
  • Almost 90% of all worldwide deaths due to COPD occur in underdeveloped and developing countries.
  • Almost 5% of all deaths worldwide in 2005 were from COPD
  • The incidence of COPD diagnosis has increased by 71% worldwide

Symptoms Of COPD

The symptoms of COPD may develop very slowly or they can much more rapidly become problematic. Often individuals do not recognize the early symptoms and fail to seek medical care until there is significant long term difficulty in breathing. Sometimes a bout of the flu or a respiratory infection will make the COPD significant enough that the individual seeks medical attention and obtains the correct diagnosis.

The most common symptoms of COPD are those of both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These can include:

ยท Difficulty breathing during mild exertion or typical activities

  • Wheezing
  • Chronic cough
  • Tightness in the chest

The cough associated with COPD can be either a dry, hacking cough or it can be a cough with significant amounts of mucus. Often the cough occurs with multiple repetitive types of respiratory infections which may go untreated. In addition to the cold-like symptoms people with COPD may have problems with feeling chronically fatigued and exhausted. This can be a direct result of low oxygen levels in the blood which limits oxygen to the cells of the body. Less frequently there can be additional complications that can occur with COPD. These can be very serious to long term health. Complications that can be seen with COPD include irregular heartbeat, heart swelling and failure, pneumonia, weight loss and malnutrition and osteoporosis.

Causes and Risk Factors

Generally people that develop COPD have long term injury to their lungs and air passages due to irritants that are inhaled. This can include chemicals in factories, homes and workplaces as well as pollution in the environment. The most common cause of COPD is cigarette smoking, which results in chronic irritation of the tissues of the respiratory system. Second hand smoke, pipe or cigar smoke as well as living or working in very dusty conditions will also increase the risk of developing the disease.

For some individuals there may be a genetic predisposition to the condition. This genetic condition is known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. It results in lower than normal levels of alpha-1 antitrypsin being produced in the liver, which in turn can lead to a decrease in the elasticity of the cells in the lungs. People with this genetic condition that smoke or are exposed to lung irritants tend to develop emphysema and related lung conditions quicker and more severely than people without the genetic condition.

Summary Information on COPD

Treatment of COPD

COPD is not a curable condition and the damage to the lungs cannot be reversed once it has developed. However, there are different options that people with COPD can use to help to manage the condition and prevent more significant breathing difficulties as they age.

Treatment for COPD will depend on the limit of damage to the tissues of the respiratory system as well as the patient's age and overall health and physical status. People that have COPD can benefit from smoking cessation combined with lifestyle choices that limit the stress on the respiratory system. In addition programs that help to increase physical fitness and prevent any further complications of the lungs or health is seen as key in limiting the progressive of the disease.

There are some medications that are now on the market that can assist in the management of the symptoms of COPD. Bronchodilators, which are also used for asthma attack treatment, can be effective for some patients. Steroids, specifically inhaled glucocorticosteriods are typically used when the symptoms are severe or when they flare. Vaccinations for the flu and pneumonia are typically recommended for anyone with COPD to prevent the condition from becoming worse with these health risks.

Rehabilitation that helps patients to develop increased lung capacity through monitored exercise is often very helpful if the COPD symptoms are in the early stages. In addition oxygen therapy, which can be continuous or just at specific times of the day, is often an important step in overall health. A high concentration of oxygen in the air that is inhaled by the person with COPD helps to keep the blood oxygen level in the normal range and prevent additional damage to the organs of the body. It will also help to provide more energy and mental clarity for the individual to complete daily tasks.

New research into the causes and treatment of COPD is providing more options for patients to consider. Prevention in the form of avoiding any type of exposure to lung irritants, particularly cigarette smoke, is still considered the best way to avoid developing this significant health condition.


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    • Mardi profile image

      Mardi Winder-Adams 5 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thank you brianschwarz. There is ongoing research so be sure to keep checking online to see what is developing for management and treatment of COPD.

    • brianschwarz profile image

      Brian Schwarz 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      This is a great article. Someone very dear to me has COPD and this is useful information for me to know.

    • Mardi profile image

      Mardi Winder-Adams 5 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thank you James and good for you! I am sure you are feeling better already and I wish you continued success in your smoking cessation program.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      It has been 63 days since I last had a cigarette. I appreciate your thoughtful presentation about COPD. Well done!

    • Mardi profile image

      Mardi Winder-Adams 6 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thank you Robie2, it is a terrible disease that ends up making life so difficult for those with the disease and the family and loved ones.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 6 years ago from Central New Jersey

      This is just an excellent explanation of What COPD is and one every smoker should read. My father in law, an ex heavy smoker, spent the last few years of his life dragging a portable oxygen tank around and died of congestive heart failure brought on by CIPD. I still remember him using the nebulizer three times a day. It was not a pretty picture. Thanks for a realistic look at this disease.