What Is COPD and Who Is At Risk?

Around 16 million Americans have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. COPD is not one ailment, but is a group of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and others. 

As specialists in pulmonology, Michael Newton, MD, and Denise Carulli, ARNP, help many patients manage COPD and help patients with risk factors understand how to lower their chances of developing it. If you have questions about this complex diagnosis, we are happy to answer them. 

Airway obstruction

COPD affects your lungs, and more specifically, involves inflammation and airway obstruction. When you breathe, air travels down your trachea into your lungs through two big tubelike structures called bronchi. Your bronchi branch and split into many smaller tubes called bronchioles. The bronchioles end in tiny sacs that are called alveoli. 

Your alveoli are filled with blood vessels called capillaries, and it’s there, in those capillaries, that oxygen is extracted from the air and enters your bloodstream. The waste from the process is exhaled. 

In order for the process to work, your bronchi, bronchioles, and alveoli must have elasticity to force the carbon dioxide out of your body when you exhale. COPD interferes with the elasticity, and not all of the air is forced out of your lungs when you exhale. 

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis

Most people have bronchitis as one point or another in their lives. However, if your bronchial tubes become and remain inflamed and narrowed, and your lungs produce excess mucus, you have chronic bronchitis — like a chest cold that never goes away. 

When you have emphysema, the thin walls of the alveoli are damaged, and they become less elastic. When you exhale, instead of forcing air out, the airways in your lungs collapse. 

Symptoms of COPD

If you have COPD, you’re probably coughing or wheezing often. You may also have excess phlegm or mucus, and it may be difficult to draw a deep breath. Shortness of breath is another common symptom.

Some people feel fatigued, or simply lack energy, because they aren’t getting enough oxygen, and some people lose weight or have swelling in their legs, ankles, or feet. 

These symptoms may come and go, making them hard to identify. You may go several days feeling short of breath, then feel better, or you may feel symptoms more acutely at a certain time of the day. 

Managing COPD

When you can’t breathe properly, it’s scary. And being diagnosed with a chronic condition without a cure like COPD can leave you feeling hopeless. But, with proper management, most people with COPD find that they can live comfortably, lower their risk of complications, and enjoy a high quality of life. 

Risk factors

The main cause of COPD is smoking tobacco. Experts estimate that 20-30% of long-time smokers develop COPD, and about 90% of people who have COPD are either current or former smokers. 

If you’re over the age of 40, and have a history of smoking, you’re at risk of COPD. The longer you’ve smoked, the higher your risk. 

Other potential risk factors include being exposed to chemicals or fumes at work, long-term exposure to air pollution, frequent inhalation of dust. A very small percentage of people have a genetic condition that predisposes them to developing COPD. 

If you have risk factors for COPD, have experienced symptoms associated with it, or you have been diagnosed, schedule an appointment with Dr. Newton. Getting more information is the first step in understanding how you can take care of yourself. You can request an appointment online, or you can call us at 813-295-8530.

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