Breathing is such a fundamental and integral aspect of our daily lives that we often take it for granted. Just imagine how enjoyable it is to take a deep breath and feel your lungs filling with air. Now, try to imagine what it would be like if you could only breathe with the same amount of power as if you were sucking through a straw. How would that make you feel? For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), this is the reality they face.
Not only does COPD deprives people of free breath but is also can negatively impact a person’s emotional well-being. Constant wheezing and coughing that may rise into a coughing attack can make a sufferer feel self-conscious or uncomfortable around others so the person might tend to avoid socializing and stay in the shadows.
What is worse is that the global burden of COPD is increasing. In 2015, the disease claimed the lives of 3.2 million people which is 11.6% more compared with 1990.
What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
As the name suggests, COPD is a chronic obstruction of the lungs. Lung obstruction means you have trouble breathing. In healthy lungs, airways and air sacs are elastic or stretchy. When breathing in, each air sac fills up with air like a small balloon. When breathing out, the air sacs deflate and the air goes out. For people with COPD, less air flows in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following:
the airways and air sacs lose their elastic quality
the walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed
the walls of the airways become thick and inflamed
the airways make more mucus than usual, which can clog them
The easiest way to understand how a person with COPD feels is to try breathing through a straw.
COPD is sometimes also called Emphysema or Chronic Bronchitis. Both of these obstruct the lungs, but they do it differently. In emphysema, the walls between the air sacs are destroyed, and the air sacs lose their shape. This means the lungs don’t work as they should. In chronic bronchitis, the airway lining becomes swollen and inflamed, and a lot of mucus is produced. Most people have a combination of both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
The biggest danger of COPD
The main danger of COPD is that it is progressive disease and people often do not realise they have it until it is already severe, for example in their 40’s and 50’s. When symptoms are mild, they may not be noticed right away and people may adjust their lifestyle to make breathing easier. For example, taking the elevator instead of the stairs or resting more often.
If COPD is left untreated, it can lead to severe limitations on the quality of life. But COPD is highly treatable and when managed properly, symptoms can be greatly relieved and those with COPD can enjoy an improved quality of life. That’s why it is important to learn about the risk factors, signs and symptoms so we can recognize them early and talk to a healthcare professional to find ways to manage them.
Main risk factors for COPD
Smoking is the most significant risk factor for COPD. When you smoke, the toxins in tobacco smoke damage the small airways and alveoli (tiny air sacs) in your lungs. Over time, this damage can lead to COPD.
In addition to damaging the small airways and alveoli, smoking can also increase inflammation in the lungs, which can make it harder for you to breathe. Smoking can also weaken the muscles in your airways, making them less able to open and close properly, which can further impair your ability to breathe.
Long-term exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust from the environment or workplace can increase the risk of developing the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These substances can irritate and damage the small airways and alveoli in the lungs, leading to inflammation and scarring. In the long run, these damages can result in COPD.
According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is estimated to cause approximately 43% of COPD deaths. Air pollution can come from a variety of sources, including traffic, industry, and power plants. Chemical fumes and dust can be found in certain occupations, such as construction and manufacturing, as well as in some household products. Inhaling these substances over a long period of time can increase the risk of developing COPD.
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) is a genetic condition that affects the production of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin, which helps protect the lungs from damage. People with AATD may be more prone to developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as the deficiency can lead to a breakdown of the protein in the lungs, leading to inflammation and scarring. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency may also increase the COPD development risk at a younger age.
It is estimated that alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is present in 1-4% of people with COPD. Given that approximately 16 million people in the United States have COPD, this means that there may be between 160,000 and 640,000 people in the US with AATD.
If you have alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, it’s important to be aware of your risk of COPD and take steps to manage your health. This may include avoiding smoking and other lung irritants and working with your healthcare provider to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.
There is a higher incidence of COPD in women, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes than men, indicating that women may be more vulnerable to the harmful effects of cigarette smoke and air pollutants exposure.
In general, female smokers have about a 50% greater risk of COPD development than men. Additionally, women with severe COPD have an increased risk of being hospitalized and experiencing respiratory failure or other complications that can lead to death.
Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergens like pollen, dust mites, cockroaches, mould, and animal dander. Allergens can exacerbate COPD symptoms. If not treated properly, allergies and asthma can increase the likelihood of developing COPD. The study shows that people with a history of childhood asthma were at a greater risk of developing COPD.
Main symptoms of COPD
The main symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) include:
Shortness of breath: This is a common symptom of COPD, and it can range from mild to severe. Shortness of breath can be triggered by physical activity, but it may also occur at rest.
Cough: Many people with COPD have a persistent cough that produces mucus. The cough may be dry or wet.
Wheezing: COPD can cause the airways in the lungs to narrow, leading to a wheezing sound when you breathe.
Chest tightness: Some people with COPD may experience a feeling of tightness in the chest.
Fatigue: COPD can make it harder for your body to get the oxygen it needs, which can lead to feelings of tiredness and fatigue.
Five ways of preventing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
When dealing with any disease we humans tend to cut the corners and run to the pharmacy and buy medicines to relieve all possible symptoms. The same can be done when treating COPD as medicine came up with various drugs. Medical treatment can help manage symptoms and improve breathing. Inhaled medications are often effective in controlling COPD symptoms. But the medal always has its reverse when it comes to using drugs. Some side effects of COPD treatment may include weight gain, mood swings, muscle weakness, higher blood sugar, and increased risk of infection.
Thus, it is always best to prevent disease. Here are a few ways to minimise risk:
1Eliminate the biggest factor: quit smoking
Quitting smoking is the most effective way to prevent chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as smoking is the leading cause of the condition.
When you smoke, the chemicals in the smoke damage alveoli in your lungs. This causes the air sacs to become inflamed and scarred, which results in the development of COPD.
The more you smoke, and the longer you smoke, the greater your risk of developing COPD. Patients with COPD who stop smoking reduce their risk of death by 32 to 84%, and they also have fewer respiratory symptoms and worsening of symptoms. Quitting smoking is not easy, but it is worth the effort for the many benefits it can bring to your health and quality of life.
2Protect yourself from air pollutants
COPD is often caused by long-term exposure to irritants such as tobacco smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes. A study of 73,000 female nurses found that occupational exposure to cleaning products and disinfectants was significantly associated with a 25-38% increased risk of developing the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, even after accounting for factors such as asthma and smoking.
You have to protect your lungs from these pollutants and reduce your risk of developing COPD. In order to do this you should:
Avoid tobacco smoke at all costs. If you smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to protect your lungs. If you don’t smoke, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
Try to reduce your exposure to air pollution by spending less time outdoors on days when air pollution is high. If you live in an area with high levels of air pollution, consider using air purifiers in your home.
Wear a mask if you work in a job that exposes you to irritants, such as dust or chemicals.
3Consume a healthy diet
A healthy diet is one of the fundamental pillars in terms of maintaining good overall health. No surprise, that the quality of food you eat affects lung health as well. Various studies have shown that a prudent diet – high in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grain products has a positive impact when it comes to COPD risk. Whereas a Western diet pattern which is characterised by a high intake of refined grains, cured and red meats, desserts and French fries increases the very risk. A high intake of fruits has a positive effect on lung function. Just one extra serving of fruit each day can reduce the risk of dying from COPD by 24%.
One study took more than a hundred patients suffering from COPD and divided them into two groups: those who were to increase their intake of fruits and veggies and those whose diet remained unchanged. Over the next three years, the state of patients on the standard diet got progressively worse. Whereas disease progression was diminished in the group that consumed more fruits and vegetables. Not only did their lung function not deteriorate, but it even improved slightly. The researchers hypothesized that this may be due to the combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of fruits and vegetables.
In contrast, studies from Columbia and Harvard Universities reveal the growth in COPD risk due to the consumption of cured meat. This is thought to be due to nitrite preservatives in meats, which can mimic the destructive properties of nitrites in cigarette smoke.
Thus, to keep your lungs healthy and maintain overall health the best is to have decent nutrition. The Mediterranean diet is a particularly good dietary choice for these purposes. It is characterized by an emphasis on plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, as well as olive oil as the primary source of fat. The diet also includes moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy products, and only small amounts of red meat.
4Be physically active
Physical activity has a number of benefits for people with COPD, including improving cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and flexibility. It may also help to improve symptoms such as shortness of breath as well as reduce the risk of worsening of symptoms, and improve the overall quality of life.
The study discovered that engaging in physical activity such as walking or cycling for at least 2 hours per week can reduce the risk of hospital admission and mortality related to COPD by 30-40%.
It is generally recommended to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week, or a combination of both in order to benefit overall health as well as lung health.
Staying hydrated is important for both preventing and treating COPD. Liquid can help to thin and loosen mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up and clear out. Mucus buildup can be a common issue for people with COPD and can contribute to breathing difficulties and an increased risk of respiratory infections.
Drinking enough fluids can also help to prevent dehydration, which can worsen symptoms and make it harder for the body to fight off infections. It’s generally recommended that people with COPD drink plenty of fluids, such as water, juice, and broth, and avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can interfere with hydration.
Drinking 6 to 8 glasses (1500-2000 ml) daily is a good goal for many people. Spread out the fluids over the whole day rather than consuming them all at once. Those who have trouble drinking enough water in one day may find it helpful to fill a water pitcher every morning. Over the course of the day, you can keep track of your progress by refilling your glasses from the same pitcher.
How to keep chronic obstructive pulmonary disease away? Let’s summarise
COPD is a serious disease that affects an increasingly number of people people globally. This condition not only deprives people of the ease of breathing but also makes life significantly harder. Who would not feel uncomfortable when coughing severely and catching hostile looks from others? The good thing is that nothing can be more effective in preventing COPD than a healthy lifestyle. Take on the very healthy habits discussed in this article and you may significantly drop your risks of developing COPD while also improving your overall health. So do not let COPD take your breath away – take control of your lung health today!
Not enough? Here is more from our colleagues
If you want to learn more about COPD, we recommend you read the book ‘How not to die’ by Michael Greger. Not only does it provide insight into preventing and dealing with COPD but it also offers tips on having a healthy lifestyle that can help prevent other severe diseases and premature death. It is a must-read for anyone looking to improve their overall health and longevity.
Get a better understanding of COPD with this animated video explanation! Learn about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for this common lung disease.