Patient with COPD

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is a group of progressive lung diseases. The most common are emphysema, asthma, and obstructive bronchiolitis. Many people with COPD have a combination of conditions.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program Coordinator Julie Waltenberger said, “While there is no cure for COPD, treatment can help ease symptoms, lower the chance of complications, and generally improve quality of breathing and life.

Untreated, COPD can lead to a faster progression of disease, heart problems, and worsening respiratory infections requiring multiple emergency room visits and admittance into the hospital.”

People with COPD must work harder to breathe, which can lead to shortness of breath and/or feeling tired. Early in the disease, people with COPD may have no symptoms or mild ones, such as feeling short of breath when they exercise, mild but recurrent cough, and needing to clear your throat often, especially first thing in the morning.

During the early stage, you may start making subtle changes, such as avoiding stairs and skipping physical activities.

As the disease progresses, it can be hard to breathe out or even breathe in. Symptoms may include chest tightness, a cough with mucus production, low fever, shortness of breath, wheezing, repetitive lung infections, and lack of energy.

Many people think the best thing to do is to sit. That is actually the worst thing you can do for your lungs. Your lungs improve with exercise.


What causes COPD?

Although the most common cause is tobacco smoke, there are several other factors that can cause or make COPD worse, including environmental exposures and inherited risk.

About 80-90 percent of people who have COPD are smokers or former smokers. Among long-time smokers, 20 to 30 percent develop COPD. If you’re exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke, you can also develop COPD.

Heavy exposure to certain dusts at work, chemicals, and indoor and outdoor air pollution can contribute to COPD.

Some people have none of these exposures and still get COPD. Researchers still don’t fully understand why some smokers never develop COPD and some people who have never smoked get COPD, but, hereditary factors probably play a role in who develops COPD.


How do I know if I have COPD?

Common symptoms include:

  • feeling short of breath while resting or when doing physical activity
  • cough
  • wheezing
  • fatigue
  • mucus production that doesn’t go away

See your healthcare provider for any unexplained chronic cough or shortness of breath. Diagnosis usually involves imaging tests, blood tests, and lung function tests. All of them can be accessed at Knoxville Hospital & Clinics.


Common lung diseases

What is emphysema?

The lungs are made up of more than 300 million tiny air sacs called alveoli. These air sacs are normally stretchy and springy. When you breathe in, the air sacs expand like tiny balloons. Breathing out usually takes no effort as the air sacs spring back to their original size.

In emphysema, the walls of the air sacs of the lung are damaged and lose their stretchiness. As a result, they don’t empty easily. Emphysema can also contribute to narrowing of the airways.

The combination of the non-stretchy air sacs due to emphysema and narrowed airways due to both obstructive bronchiolitis and emphysema, prevents the lungs from emptying normally. This causes air to become trapped in the lungs. Air trapping or the inability to fully exhale, leads to abnormal expansion of the lungs.

Constantly having trapped air in the lungs, combined with the extra effort needed to breathe, causes a person to feel short of breath.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory condition that causes the bronchi to spasm, which causes difficulty to breathe. Symptoms during flare-up include difficulty with breathing, chest pain, cough, and wheezing.

What is obstructive bronchiolitis?

Obstructive bronchiolitis is a condition in which chronic inflammation and swelling cause the inside of the breathing tubes (airways) to be smaller than normal. This interferes with how well and how easily air empties out of the lungs.


How is COPD treated?

Breathing testThe first and most important treatment of COPD in smokers is to stop smoking.

Medications can also be prescribed to help relieve symptoms of COPD and prevent flare-ups that can lead to further loss of lung function.

Stay as healthy as possible. Avoid contact with those who are sick, wash hands often, get a yearly flu shot, and get a pneumonia shot when recommended by your doctor. Use an emergency inhaler prior to any exercise.

In some people, COPD can also cause the oxygen level in the blood to be low. If this happens, a person can be given supplemental oxygen. Simple pursed lip breathing helps improve oxygenation for those that suffer from COPD. The important aspect is learning to use pursed lip breathing with all of your activities.

Proper nutrition and staying in good physical shape are also important not just for symptom relief, but also for your quality of life.

KHC’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program

Knoxville Hospital & Clinics offers a Pulmonary Rehab Program that includes supervised exercise and education for those with breathing problems. It should be part of a treatment plan for anyone with COPD. The program lasts from 24 sessions up to 36. Medicare covers pulmonary rehab for patients with moderate to severe COPD.

Julie said, “By participating in the program, you will learn breathing and relaxation techniques, which can help you better cope with stressful situations. The program also helps patients improve their physical activity habits, maximize their energy level, and improve their overall health and well-being.”

The Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at KHC’s campus in Knoxville is open to people with pulmonary diseases, as well as to people with cardiovascular diseases or those at risk of developing cardiovascular disease.


Sources: American Thoracic Society, Healthline, Mayo Clinic, WebMD

The information on this blog is provided for general information purposes and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, care, treatment or evaluation; nor should it be used in diagnosing a health condition. You are encouraged to consult your health care provider if you or a family member has or suspect you have a medical problem.