Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Emphysema, Chronic Bronchitis, and You

As we continue our weekly coverage of prevalent conditions we see in our home care cases across the Eastern Shore, we have turned to address COPD, Chronic Bronchitis, and Emphysema. As the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, we care for clients with this condition throughout Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester counties. Because of this, we believe it is important to provide our community with resources and information on these conditions, so they can be more active members of their care team.

First a brief overview of these conditions. The COPD Foundation defines COPD as, “a term used to describe chronic lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis… characterized by breathlessness”. COPD is a blanket term for several non-communicable diseases, most commonly Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis. Emphysema is a condition which damages the tiny air sacs in your lungs (alveoli), causing them to exchange oxygen less efficiently. This, in turn, causes a constant shortness of breath. Chronic Bronchitis is a condition in which inflammation of the tubes that bring air from your throat to the alveoli in your lungs (these tubes are called bronchioles). This inflammation, in turn, causes special cells that help move mucus out of your lungs (called cilia) to not function correctly and eventually die. This causes a chronic cough, sometimes called a smoker’s cough due to the tendency for smoking to cause this inflammation, as the person tries to get the built up mucus out of their lungs.

The largest risk factor for developing COPD is smoking. When a person inhales tobacco smoke, the small alveoli and cilia in the lungs are damaged due to the smoke’s toxic nature. Often these conditions do not occur in a vacuum; a person can have varying degrees of both Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema, which is partially why the conditions are grouped together under the name COPD. Other risk factors for COPD include long-term exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes, dusts, or secondhand smoke.

Because smoking is the largest risk factor for developing COPD, the best prevention is to not start smoking or quit smoking. For resources to stop smoking please visit the National Institute of Health’s SmokeFree website.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “COPD symptoms often don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred, and they usually worsen over time, particularly of smoking exposure continues”.  Some common COPD symptoms include: shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic cough that , chest tightness, and lack of energy. It is important to see your doctor if you have these symptoms, especially if you are a smoker or also have signs of infection (like fever).

There are several types of medications, both inhaled and in pill form, that can be prescribed to help manage COPD. There are also “Rescue” or “Quick Relief” Inhalers for short-term spikes in symptoms. Additionally. Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Oxygen Therapy may be used to improve your quality of life and help you get back to doing the things you love.

It is important to talk to your care providers about COPD if you have a breathing problem. At Nurse Professionals Home Care, our nurses can help manage this condition and improve you or your loved one’s quality of life. For more information, please visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s COPD webpage, the Mayo Clinic’s resources list, the COPD Foundation website, or contact your medical professional.