Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is the general term used by the medical community to describe a number of lung diseases that are predominantly caused by smoking. The two most common: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. As they cause obstruction of the airways and pulmonary alveoli, these diseases make breathing very difficult and laborious. COPD is much more widespread than you might have thought, as it is estimated that more than 700,000 Canadians are afflicted with the disease. Furthermore, COPD is the fourth cause of mortality in Canada, and it is responsible for 13% of all hospitalizations in the country. And although COPD is a treatable and preventable disease, it is often under-diagnosed.
COPD rarely appears unexpectedly. In fact, 80 to 90% of cases can be attributed to smoking. The greater the number of years and packs of cigarettes an individual has smoked, the greater their risk of suffering from COPD becomes. Additionally, individuals who smoke the pipe and cigars, along with those who have long been exposed to second-hand smoke also have an increased risk of suffering from COPD. In rare cases, COPD may also be attributed to other factors, such as prolonged exposure to mineral dust, chemical fumes and gases in the workplace.
Initially, COPD may be silent as the signs and symptoms typically manifest themselves once lesions appear on the lungs. Classic symptoms of COPD include persistent coughing, increased production of mucus, shortness of breath or breathlessness (particularly when exercising), wheezing, tightness in the chest, as well as recurring respiratory infections.
Complications of COPD include frequent colds, flu and pneumonia. Furthermore, sufferers have also been known to develop heart problems, and even depression. These complications have serious consequences since they slowly but progressively decrease a sufferer’s quality of life. As the disease progresses, sufferers become increasingly limited not only in their daily activities, but also in the hobbies they get to enjoy. With time, even the simple act of dressing themselves can trigger breathlessness. Regrettably, COPD cannot be cured. With the right course of treatment however, sufferers have a lower risk of complications and can usually lead a fairly normal and active life.
The corner stone of any COPD treatment is smoking cessation. This is the ONLY course of action to prevent COPD and delay its progress. And it is never too late to quit smoking! After all, it is the very best option for people of all ages. Because quitting can be very challenging for many smokers, the medical community usually recommends that individuals who are planning to quit seek the support of their family physician and pharmacist. These health professionals can provide various tips and tools to help smokers through this difficult period, so they can quit for good!
To help alleviate breathlessness caused by COPD, physicians usually prescribe inhalers, commonly known as “puffers” or “pumps”. The purpose of these medications is to help sufferers live a more active life. In some cases, these medications can help prevent acute exacerbations or flare-ups, which can lead to hospitalization. There are two categories of inhalers: bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids (ICSs). The main purpose of bronchodilators is to open up the airways in the lungs, allowing air to move more freely and thereby relieve or reduce shortness of breath and wheezing. For their part, inhaled corticosteroids (ICSs) are typically recommended for individuals who suffer from symptoms that are also caused by inflammation in the airways. It is important to know that the key to any optimal treatment is using the inhaler correctly. Proper inhalation technique is meant to ensure that the intended amount of medication reaches the lungs. Individuals who have been using inhalers for a while tend to forget just how important good technique is. You can revise your inhalation technique with your pharmacist to make sure you get the most of out of your treatment.
With “metered-dose inhalers” or “puffers”, it is usually preferable to use a spacing chamber or spacer (a plastic tube) to help maximize the quantity of medication reaching the lungs. Your physician and pharmacist can provide you with additional information on this device.
Conclusion: There are ways to improve your quality of life when you are at grips with COPD. The very first course of action is obviously quitting smoking immediately. Visiting your physician regularly, modifying your lifestyle habits and eating a healthy diet can also prove helpful. Furthermore, you can ask your physician to recommend relaxation and breathing techniques, as well as respiratory rehabilitation, as these can also help you breathe more effectively and reduce breathlessness. You can also improve your physical strength and stay fit by performing regular physical exercise adapted to your specific health condition.
The medical community also recommends that all individuals suffering from COPD receive their yearly flu vaccine to decrease their risk of disease complication and hospitalization. As flu shots are offered at no cost in Quebec, why not take advantage of this perk!
You should be aware that even when sufferers follow their treatment plan to the letter, flare-ups or acute exacerbations may still occur. Whenever you are experiencing a flare-up, you must consult a physician as quickly as possible.
Because living with COPD can be particularly challenging, you should not hesitate to use all the resources at your disposal! The Canadian Lung Association offers a number of tools to support and guide patients living with COPD. You can contact them to obtain further information, or visit them on-line at www.lung.ca. You should also speak with your health professionals.