If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with COPD, there are some important things that you should know. According to the American Lung Association, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD for short) is a disease of the lungs which causes difficulty in breathing. The progressive nature of this condition means that it worsens over time and can lead to early death. Shortness of breath and wheezing are often accompanied by a buildup of mucus, leading to coughing fits and an inability to clear the lungs.
Over 11 million people in America have been diagnosed with COPD, and it is estimated that another 13 million have the disease but are undiagnosed. The number one cause for COPD is cigarette smoking. Other contributing factors are long term exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes and second hand smoke. Long term smokers, even those who have quit, are at risk for developing COPD, which was the third leading cause of death in 2011, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. So, what is COPD all about?
A Pair of Lung Diseases
COPD actually describes the combination of two primary lung conditions, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, among others. These two conditions involve damage to bronchial tubes (the branches from the airway) and the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) which are at the very end of the bronchial tubes. Bronchial tubes carry air to the alveoli, the tiny sacs responsible for the transport of oxygen to the blood on the inhaling breath, and the removal of carbon dioxide from the blood back into the lung and out on the exhaling breath. They function just like little balloons and need to be flexible to inflate and deflate with every breath in and out.
In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes inflamed and obstructed. Mucus forms and an ongoing persistent cough becomes a weekly or daily symptom. It is difficult for air to pass through the swollen tubes to the alveoli. The lungs then become vulnerable to infection and debilitating illness.
With emphysema, it’s the alveoli that are damaged. The thin, fragile tissue of the alveoli is destroyed, reducing the transmission of oxygen to the blood. Air actually becomes trapped in the lungs, unable to progress through to the blood. This can also bring about excess mucus and symptoms of coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath. It may sometimes lead to a barrel chested appearance, as the remaining functioning tissue expands to attempt air exchange.
From these descriptions, you can begin to imagine the difficulty for the person with COPD. The need for constant coughing to expel mucus, or struggling to breathe and move enough air through the lungs is nothing short of exhausting. Patients describe a feeling of suffocation, quite literally, as they cope with the progression of disease.
Either one or both of these conditions can be present in a COPD diagnosis. Once the deterioration has begun, it is irreversible...but it can be treated and managed with ongoing care. Due to the symptoms and the patient’s reduced functioning, basic daily tasks may become challenging. That’s when you might need the services of an In Home Care specialist.
Help for COPD Patients and Families
Pennsylvania Agency of Nurses is a nurse-owned and nurse-operated home care agency. Our mission is to provide care in the home to address the specific needs of the patient. COPD care requires a multifaceted approach. We support patients (and families who are caring for them) with basic daily care, respiratory therapy, managing medication, and rapid response in exacerbation of symptoms when breathing is compromised.
The most important thing is to get symptoms of persistent coughing or difficulty breathing evaluated by a doctor. Proper diagnosis is the key to effective treatment. Your pulmonary physician will begin that process and recommend an action plan. To learn more about what you can do to manage life with COPD, please contact PAN today!