You may have heard of someone being described as having COPD, and you probably wondered what that meant and whether it was serious. Yes. COPD is a serious, life-threatening pulmonary disease that is more commonly associated with or known as emphysema. However, it may also be the result of chronic asthma or chronic bronchitis. COPD is an acronym for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Its most prominent feature is dyspnea which is described as difficult, labored breathing that makes the person feel as if he/she is suffocating. To simulate what dyspnea feels like, due to COPD, try the following exercise: Take a deep, full breath. Let half of the air out of your lungs. Now, breathe that way.
What Causes COPD?
Many people die from COPD, and when the disease gets to the terminal stage, it is referred to as End-Stage COPD. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. More than 12 million people are diagnosed with it, and it can be detected in people over 40 by a persistent or progressive dyspnea, a chronic cough, and a decline in level of activity. COPD is more likely to occur in people who have a history of smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of emphysema. The Mayo Clinc describes emphysema as when the air sacs at the ends of the smallest air passages (bronchioles) in the lungs are gradually destroyed. As emphysema gets worse, emphysema turns the air sacs, which are clustered like bunches of grapes, into large, irregular pockets with gaping holes in their inner walls. This keeps some of the oxygen entering the lungs from reaching the bloodstream. The elastic fibers that hold open the small airways leading to the air sacs are slowly destroyed, so that they collapse when breathing out, not letting the air in the lungs escape. Often times, people with COPD or emphysema will have what looks like a barrel chest, and this is due to the fact that the damaged air sacs are keeping air in the lungs.
Dyspnea’s Disabling Effects
Whether emphysema, asthma or chronic bronchitis are the cause behind end-stage COPD, the most troublesome and debilitating symptom of any pulmonary disease is the dyspnea. Patients with pulmonary diseases experience dyspnea in different ways. Some people find it hard to draw in a breath while others find it difficult to exhale. The person with end-stage COPD may also feel a vice-grip sensation in the chest. Although oxygen is a common treatment for dyspnea symptoms, anitanxiety drugs may be used to reduce the feeling of panic that often accompanies the onset of serious or end-stage pulmonary disease.
Ultimately, COPD can become terminal. At this point, it is often described as end-stage COPD or end-stage pulmonary disease. Some of the symptoms observed when a patient is terminal from COPD are disabling dyspnea – even at rest, fatigue that reduces functional capacity to a “bed to chair existence,” persistent cough, and usually multiple visits to the emergency room due to respiratory failure or pulmonary infections. When emphysema, asthma or chronic bronchitis turn into end-stage COPD, clinical tests will likely show that the oxygen saturation for the patient is less that 88% when breathing room air. This level of serious illness is likely accompanied by unintentional weight loss, as it may be difficult to eat when a person with pulmonary disease is suffering from severe dyspnea. Also, the heart may race at more than 100 beats per minute. Caregivers may notice depression or over all “crankiness” in the end-stage COPD patient, and it is not unusual for the individual to feel panicky if he/she feels an oxygen supply may not last as long as needed.
A Genetic Cause for COPD
Finally, it is possible that pulmonary diseases may not be due to environment. Certainly, smoking can cause emphysema, and dirty living conditions can contribute to asthma; especially if roaches or rats are present, but it is also known that a genetic deficiency can also put individuals at risk for COPD. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein that is produced mostly in the liver. Its primary function is to protect the lungs from an overabundance of an enzyme that eats damaged cells in the lung, but it can go unchecked and attack healthy cells if an individual does not have the Alpha-1 protein. Alpha-1 deficient patients are often diagnosed with emphysema COPD, asthma, and chronic bronchitis. Whatever the cause of COPD and other pulmonary diseases, the situation does not have to be an immediate death sentence. Most pulmonary diseases can be managed and controlled with medical intervention. However, avoiding unhealthy habits, like smoking may be the best way to prevent or retard the onset of COPD.