August 01, 2018

COPD

When it's hard to breathe

When you first began feeling short of breath after climbing the stairs, you brushed it off as being out of shape. But when combined with that nagging cough, you felt downright limited.

While shortness of breath is a warning sign of many different conditions, one of the more common is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a progressive lung disease most often caused by a history of tobacco use. COPD is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. But it's a disease that can be managed for several years.

Obstructing the airways

When you inhale, air travels down your windpipe (trachea) into your lungs through two large tubes (bronchi). Once inside your lungs, these bronchi divide like the branches of a tree into smaller tubes (bronchioles) that end in clusters of tiny air sacs (alveoli).

COPD encompasses two main lung diseases — chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Emphysema causes destruction of the fragile walls and elastic fibers of the alveoli. With chronic bronchitis, your bronchial tubes become inflamed and narrowed, and your lungs produce more mucus, leading to a chronic cough in an attempt to clear the airways. Most people with COPD have components of both.

An estimated 80 percent or more of people with COPD have a history of cigarette smoking. Cigar, pipe and secondhand smoke also are known culprits. Other irritants that can bring about the disease include air pollution and environmental exposure to dust, smoke or fumes. COPD also may occur in some people with a history of severe childhood asthma or respiratory illnesses. Genetics also plays a role.

It's easy to mistake the symptoms of COPD for other conditions. For that reason, the disease often goes undiagnosed until later stages. Signs and symptoms include: