Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) a long-term lung disease that makes breathing very difficult. The two common forms of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These diseases often occur together, but individuals may have symptoms more characteristic of one than the other. Typically, those with COPD have chronic shortness of breath, a chronic cough, and frequently cough up phlegm.
Chronic bronchitis is characterized by inflamed airway tissue and excessive mucus production. This leads to a persistent, productive cough for several months each year. The inflammation causes the large and small airways of the lungs to become narrowed. The lining of the passageways may become scarred. This makes it hard to move air in and out of the lungs. It results in shortness of breath.
With emphysema, the walls between the tiny air sacs in the lungs lose their ability to stretch. They eventually become weakened and break. As the lung tissue becomes less elastic, air is trapped inside the air sacs. This impairs the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Early Symptoms of COPD
The symptoms of COPD are mild at first. They become more severe and debilitating as the disease progresses. Early symptoms include:
Fatigue – The increased work of breathing and lower oxygen may make you tired with activities, or all the time.
Cough – Cough that produces a lot of mucus is a common symptom of COPD. Coughing may be worse during a cold or respiratory infection.
Sputum Production – More common with chronic bronchitis type. Production increases over time.
Wheezing – A whistling or rustling sound may be heard when exhaling, which is prolonged. Wheezing often worsens with a cold or respiratory infection.
Shortness of Breath – This symptom develops as COPD becomes progressively worse. At first, shortness of breath may only occur with physical exertion. As the disease becomes more advanced, it may occur after very modest activity. When the illness becomes very severe, shortness of breath occurs even at rest.
Almost all COPD is caused by cigarette smoking. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the US. The American Lung Association estimates that more than 12 million people have COPD. This number could be much higher since some people may not know they have it. Deaths from COPD are greater among women than men. Sometimes people can miss the early warning signs of COPD, like shortness of breath. Missing these early warning signs often means that the disease is not found until much later and when it has worsened. When COPD is found early, there are treatments available to help manage the disease.
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