Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a long-term, inflammatory lung condition that causes airflow obstruction and reduced lung function. In short, COPD makes it hard to breathe. In 2020, 12.5 million people were reported to have COPD. Common symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, chronic cough, chronic sputum production and frequent respiratory infections. Lung diseases, such as emphysema, asthma, chronic bronchitis, bronchiectasis and cystic fibrosis are components of obstructive lung disease, with the two main contributors of COPD being chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Although there is no known cure, there are treatments to help manage this condition.
The primary risk factor for COPD is smoking. In fact, 80-85 percent of those diagnosed with COPD have a history of smoking tobacco or exposure to smoke. COPD is diagnosed with a pulmonary function test or a computed tomography (CT) scan. Once diagnosed, treatment consists of medications to help reduce inflammation and increase airflow in the airways. An inhaler such as a bronchodilator that relaxes the muscles in the airway; or a steroid, which reduces inflammation; or a combination of both may be prescribed. In addition, oral steroids, antibiotics or other medications may be needed based on the severity of symptoms. Lastly, there are surgical options for patients with a severe form of the disease. Surgery is not a cure but can improve quality of life.
Although a chronic condition, sometimes the symptoms of COPD can become overwhelming or uncomfortable and require hospitalization. “COPD patients often are frequent flyers in the hospital, so as respiratory therapists we get to know them on a pretty intimate basis. Our main goal within the hospital is to return them to their baseline, and then to give them the resources and education to control their symptoms at home. The concern with COPD patients is that the condition is progressive and incurable, so eventually their baseline gets worse and worse if we don't step in,” Blount Memorial cardiopulmonary clinical educator Will Hargis said.
Since COPD progresses differently for each person, life expectancy varies. While the damage from COPD can’t be reversed, lifestyle modifications and getting treatment as early as possible can help manage symptoms and increase life expectancy. What can a COPD patient do at home to manage their symptoms? The most obvious answer is to quit smoking. However, staying active and exercising; eating a regular, healthy diet; taking medications as directed; and a pulmonary rehabilitation program with consistent execution of breathing exercises are recommended to help manage the disease.
Caring for a loved one with COPD requires education and preparation. “I’ve had several of my family members suffer from the consequences associated with a lifetime of tobacco abuse, so caring for COPD patients is something that resonates with me,” Hargis said. Knowing the signs of COPD exacerbation and when to seek emergency treatment are key. Encouraging healthy habits and making modifications such as removing allergens and installing air filters can help your loved one breathe easier, as well.