Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and what causes it?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. It is caused by long-term exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke, second-hand smoke, air pollution and workplace exposure to dust, smoke or fumes as well as conditions such as emphysema and bronchitis. Emphysema causes destruction of the fragile walls and elastic fibres of the small sacs within the lungs, impairing airflow out of the lungs. Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, causes inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes leading to overproduction of mucus, which can further block the narrowed tubes. In very rare cases COPD may be caused by Alpha-1-anti-trypsin deficiency.

How does chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affect the lungs?

As air travels down the windpipe, it branches into the lungs through the bronchi, which then branches into smaller pipes known as the bronchioles. At the end of each bronchiole, there is an alveolar sac which allows the oxygen in the air you to enter the bloodstream. Irritants in the air cause these bronchioles and alveolar sacs to lose their elasticity and fail to force air out of the lungs when you exhale. This means some air is left trapped in your lungs when you exhale. This is the reason that COPD is characterized by increasing breathlessness.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

COPD includes symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing
  • Chronic coughing (with or without mucus
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Fatigue

Those with COPD may experience episodes in which the symptoms worsen. These are known as exacerbations and can last a few days.

Can chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) be treated?

Sadly chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a progressive and (currently) incurable disease. There are different types of COPD, and each type's treatment will vary. However, with an accurate diagnosis, treatment can be aimed at managing the symptoms to allow those with COPD quality of life, as well as reduced risk of other associated conditions. Dr Mothilal may assist in the management of exacerbations and symptoms using bronchodilator medications and oxygen therapy. In severe cases, your pulmonologist may advise surgery, in which case you will be referred to a specialist surgeon.


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