What is COPD and who does it affect?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an inflammatory lung disease that blocks airflow from the lungs. It’s a term that encompasses chronic and progressive respiratory diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. People with COPD usually have both of these conditions which are caused by lung damage due to many years of cigarette smoking or exposure to airborne irritants such as dust, chemical fumes or even air pollution.

Because the disease develops gradually, most people are over the age of 60 by the time COPD begins causing symptoms. In Australia, COPD affects 14% (one out of seven) of the population over the age of 40 and 29% of those over the age of 75.  

According to statistics reported by the Lung Foundation Australia, COPD is the number two cause of avoidable hospital admissions. And, in 2013, COPD was the number five cause of death in Australia. Fortunately this number is decreasing rather than rising, but it is still important that people who are living with COPD take steps toward proper management.

Symptoms of COPD

Because the disease develops gradually, the first symptoms are mild and often dismissed as cold or flu. In the early stages the symptoms are:

  • shortness of breath on occasion, particularly after exercise or exertion
  • a mild cough that comes and goes
  • having to clear your throat, especially in the morning

As the disease progresses the symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath that is more frequent, caused by mild exertion or exercise
  • wheezing
  • noisy breathing
  • tightness in the chest
  • a chronic cough accompanied by phlegm or not
  • decline in energy levels
  • fatigue
  • weight loss
  • the need to clear phlegm from the lungs on a daily basis
  • frequent illness such as cold or flu
  • frequent respiratory illnesses
  • swelling in the lower extremities

Be sure to seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • your fingernails or lips have a blue or gray hue caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood
  • catching your breath is difficult
  • you cannot speak
  • you feel confused
  • you feel faint
  • you have a racing heart

Living with COPD

For 1.45 million Australians living with some form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, simple daily activities like getting dressed or making a cup of tea can potentially become impossible tasks without proper treatment.

While there is no cure for COPD, it is treatable. The focus of healthcare is to treat the symptoms, reduce risk of exacerbation (a sudden flare up), improve quality of life, increase capacity for healthy exercise and avoid hospitalisation.  For improved quality of life, healthcare providers suggest these tips for people living with COPD:

  • Quit smoking to slow the rate of progression and ease the symptoms of COPD.
  • Take part in pulmonary rehabilitation together with medical therapy. P.R. includes exercise training, nutritional counseling, education about the disease, instruction on how to conserve energy, breathing strategies and psychological support. Effective pulmonary rehabilitation helps reduce breathlessness, fatigue, anxiety and depression which often accompany COPD. It also helps people living with COPD become more active, have a better outlook and raise their quality of life levels.
  • Use inhaled medicines to ease symptoms and increase quality of life.
  • Make sure to get vaccinated against influenza or pneumonia.
  • Avoid isolation by taking part in support groups or spending time with friends and family.
  • Use oxygen therapy to relieve symptoms of advanced COPD.

The Stages of COPD

The five stages of COPD are:

Stage 0: A person is considered at risk for COPD if they present symptoms such as coughing accompanied by mucus production. It doesn’t mean that they have COPD but it is advisable that they quit smoking and increase overall health by eating a healthy diet and increasing physical activity.

Stage One: At this stage symptoms are still mild and many times unrecognized. Symptoms include a more persistent cough accompanied by an increase in mucus production. At this stage, your physician may advise use of a bronchodilator.

Stage Two: Symptoms are more moderate and noticeable in stage two. Shortness of breath usually accompanies coughing and mucus production. At this point, a long-acting bronchodilator may be necessary.

Stage Three: At this stage with frequent and severe symptom flare ups, normal daily functions become more difficult. Physicians may recommend using oxygen therapy, corticosteroids and other medication.

Stage Four: Symptoms continue progression and become very severe and can include life threatening flare ups. At this stage surgical treatment may be necessary.

Even though deaths caused by COPD are declining in Australia every year, it is still a leading cause of mortality following heart disease, stroke and cancer. Knowledge about the disease and early diagnosis together with disease management programs will work in combination to increase the quality of life for people living with COPD, slow the rate of progression and reduce the number of deaths even further.

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