Approximately 85% of cases of COPD are the direct result of cigarette smoking, either active or passive. The other 15% are attributable to exposure to industrial dust or air and occupational pollutants, while a small number of people with COPD have an inherited genetic deficiency. There is no cure for this debilitating condition, but sufferers can improve their quality of life through self help and medication.
Symptoms of COPD
COPD sufferers experience obstruction of their airways and compromised breathing. The main symptom is shortness of breath and there may be accompanying wheeze, reduced exercise tolerance, cough and sputum.
The diagnosis of COPD is made on your medical history, clinical examination, lung function, and other specialised testing.
In emphysema, the small air spaces or alveoli enlarge, reducing the surface area available for oxygen to be absorbed.
In chronic bronchitis, the size and number of the mucus glands are increased leading to copious overproduction of thick sticky mucus.
The two conditions often overlap with resulting inflammation and fibrosis, the outcome being restriction of air into the alveoli, consequently affecting the amount of oxygen in the blood. However, in bronchitis the obstruction results from the copious overproduction of thick, sticky mucus.
By far the most important self-help step for COPD sufferers is to stop smoking. Without this vital first step, no other self help strategies will work to improve your quality of life. Inhaling second-hand smoke will also aggravate COPD so ensure that smoking friends and family understand your situation and protect you from the damage of their cigarette smoke.
In some cases it may be necessary to change jobs if occupational pollution is a problem.
Preventing and controlling COPD
1. Move it or lose it
Yes, it’s vital that you exercise regularly. Many COPD sufferers become inactive because of difficulty with breathlessness on exertion. In reality, regular, gentle and increasing levels of exercise is vital for long-term management of COPD. Inactivity causes the lungs and other muscles to become progressively weaker and less efficient. Giving muscles a regular workout increases their ability to function with lower levels of oxygen. Choose an exercise you enjoy and start very slowly, gradually building up the exercise; gentle walking on the flat is one such great exercise. Check with your doctor before you begin your exercise programme.
2. Use your medication
There are a number of different medications that may help. Preventer and reliever inhalers are very helpful, and antibiotics, steroids and oxygen are sometimes used in the management of COPD. Preventer inhalers are steroid-based and work by reducing the swelling in the airways as well as reducing mucus production. Relievers relax the muscles in the breathing tubes of the lungs helping keep them open for improved oxygen uptake. COPD sufferers are more prone to chest infections because of the increased mucus production in their lungs. Antibiotics are used to treat infection whenever the normally white or clear lung mucus becomes yellow or green. These are often used together with oral steroids. When severe COPD leads to low levels of oxygen in the blood, the heart is put under increased strain: in this case, oxygen therapy is used to increase oxygen levels in the blood.
3. Do regular breathing exercises
There are special breathing exercises that your physiotherapist can teach you to help control your breathing. These include diaphragmatic and pursed-lip breathing.
4. Optimise your nutrition
Breathlessness easily leads to exhaustion. It is important to give your body all the nutrients, protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats it needs for optimum cellular nutrition. A Mediterranean style diet has been shown to be very helpful for men with COPD. If you are carrying extra weight it is vital for you to slim down to a healthy weight to lessen the load on your already overworked lungs and heart. Work with a health professional such as a dietitian to achieve this.
5. Conserve your energy resource
Breathlessness and fatigue are a fact of life for COPD sufferers. Think smart to find ways of conserving energy while still achieving. Pace yourself and sit and rest between activity; if you can sit to perform a task instead of standing, all the better; attach wheels to things you have to carry around a lot (such as a washing basket) and push rather than carry; delegate to others and get family and friends involved with carrying out necessary tasks.
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