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June 11, 2024

COPD Unraveled: Understanding the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Respiratory diseases have become a common issue nowadays. Even someone who doesn’t suffer from any chronic respiratory issues faces problems during the dry season or the crop-burning season. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to be aware of diseases that can mess up our breathing system.

Let’s look at a group of such ailments that are becoming common with every passing day – COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Globally, COPD is the third leading cause of death.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is the name assigned to a group of diseases that block the airflow resulting in breathing-related problems. It includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, both of which are lung-damaging diseases. Around 5% of the population of Malaysia suffers from it. The lungs can get clogged or damaged with phlegm when one suffers from COPD.

A COPD diagnosis translates to a patient having one of these two diseases or symptoms of both. Although COPD cannot be cured, it can be treated. However, in most cases, the disease remains undiagnosed until it has progressed to moderate to severe cases. It can become harder to breathe, as COPD progresses, although the progression itself can be slow.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis irritates the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the lungs. As a result, the tubes get swollen and mucus builds up along the lining. This narrows the tube’s opening, making it hard to get air in and out of the lungs.


The breakdown of the walls of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs located at the bottom of your lungs is emphysema. An integral part of the lungs, these air sacs play an important role in transferring oxygen into the blood and carbon dioxide out of it. Emphysema damages these air sacs, making it difficult to get a full breath.

Causes of COPD

So, what causes the disease? Are you at the risk of developing it? One of the primary causes of COPD is tobacco exposure. While people who actively smoke are at primary risk, exposure to passive smoke also increases the risk.

Other causes include:

  • Occupational exposure to dust, fumes or chemicals
  • Childhood asthma
  • Indoor air pollution such as cooking with coal, coal-based heating systems, etc
  • Events in childhood such as prematurity, utero, severe or frequent respiratory infections that have affected proper lung growth
  • A rare genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This can lead to COPD at an early age

Symptoms of COPD

In most cases, the symptoms of COPD don’t appear until the lungs are significantly damaged. COPD can become worse with time, especially if the patient continues to smoke.

Common symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Chronic cough that may produce mucus that’s clear, yellow, white or greenish
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Swelling in feet, ankles or legs

Different people experience different symptoms of COPD with some people not experiencing any symptoms until COPD has progressed. The symptoms can vary from one day to another and can worsen as the disease progresses.

The risk of other health problems such as flu, pneumonia, heart problems, lung cancer, brittle bones, weak muscles, anxiety and depression increases when one suffers from COPD.

What Happens to Your Body if You Have COPD?

The airways of the lungs become narrow due to inflammation or thickening caused by COPD. COPD can also lead to the destruction of the walls between the tiny air sacs or alveoli.

These can lead to the airways or the alveoli losing the ability to stretch and shrink back, thus leading to the production of more mucus which can clog them and block the airflow into the body. As a result, less air flows in and out of the body.

What’s the Difference between COPD and Asthma?

Both diseases are similar in many ways and can have similar symptoms such as blocked airflow and shortness of breath. However, asthma is caused by allergens while COPD is chronic and progresses slowly. The main cause of COPD is smoking.

Now the natural question that emerges here is do people with asthma automatically develop COPD? Well, while a patient can have both these respiratory conditions, having one does not necessarily mean you will get the other.

Treatment of COPD

As it is a chronic condition, COPD is not curable. However, avoiding the causes such as not smoking, avoiding air pollution and getting vaccines can make it better and slow down the progression.

COPD is usually treated using medicines, oxygen and pulmonary rehabilitation. The good news is an array of treatment options are available for COPD. Let’s look at the primary ones:

  • Bronchodilators: These are medicated mists that the patient needs to inhale. They relax the airways, making it easier to breathe.
  • Supplemental Oxygen: The blockage of inflow and outflow of air due to COPD can cause a dearth of oxygen in the body. The patient might need to inhale oxygen from a portable oxygen tank to improve the oxygen levels.
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines: These are given as pills or inhalable steroids to reduce the inflammation in the lungs.
  • Antihistamines: These medicines can provide relief from sneezing, watery eyes and stuffy heads, which can make it more difficult to breathe.
  • Antibiotics: A patient becomes prone to lung infections due to COPD, which in turn, can cause further damage to the already weak lungs. Antibiotics are often prescribed to stop a bacterial infection.
  • Antivirals: Antivirals can be prescribed by your doctor to cure viral infections. Viral infections, especially influenza can be a dangerous disease when one has COPD.
  • Vaccinations: The risk of respiratory infections increases when one has COPD. Hence it is important to get flu and pneumonia vaccines.
  • Rehabilitation programs: These programs are very useful in knowing how to live with the disease and manage it. They teach you effective breathing strategies that can improve your overall fitness and the fitness of your lungs.

COPD – A Final Word

Living with COPD is not easy, but not impossible. A few lifestyle changes can bring a world of difference to a patient’s quality of life. The first step would be to quit smoking or vaping or exposure to second-hand smoke. Staying physically active also helps to a great extent.

Another primary action will be to protect yourself from lung infections. For this, get vaccinated for flu and pneumonia every year. Ensure you have received the vaccines for Covid-19. Improve your knowledge about the disease as much as possible. This can help you learn how to manage it properly.

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