What is COPD?

COPD is an acronym for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is an umbrella term for a range of progressive lung diseases. The most common COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis, with the majority of people having both diseases. COPD takes a long period of time to develop.

How do our lungs function?

Inhaled air goes into your lungs through tubular branches called bronchi, dividing into smaller branches called bronchioles, which finally end in microscopic clusters of air sacs called alveoli, where oxygen from the inhaled air is absorbed into the blood and carbon dioxide is exhaled out.

Hair-like projections called cilia act as a filter by secreting mucus to protect the bronchi lining and trap microorganisms.

bronchi lining

Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis

Emphysema slowly damages the air sacs in your lungs, causing interference with exhalation. Damage to air sacs is irreversible.

Bronchitis is an inflammatory disease which allows mucus to build up in the bronchial tubes while making them narrow down. It is chronic when the disease progressively worsens.

Research done over the years has shown the main cause for COPD is tobacco smoking. In recent years, e-cigarettes are also seen as a cause for COPD.

Hazardous work environments that give workers long-term exposure to chemical irritants have also been found to be a cause.

Bad ventilation at home which indirectly cause people to breath fumes from fuel for heating or cooking fumes is another cause of COPD.

Some COPD sufferers have a deficiency in alpha-1-antitrypsin which is a protein. This deficiency affects the liver and causes lung deterioration.

COPD has no known cure, but treatments can help in the following ways:

  • lower the chance of further complications
  • ease the symptoms
  • generally improve a COPD sufferer’s quality of life

Left untreated, COPD will progressively worsen which will then lead to heart problems, respiratory infections, lung damage and even the loss of a lung in severe cases.

Early symptoms of COPD include:

  • shortness of breath, especially after taking the stairs or after exercise
  • recurrent mild cough
  • need to clear mucus or phlegm from the throat, especially upon awakening

Instead of seeking medical attention, some people make bad decisions by avoiding the stairs or skipping exercise. However, COPD symptoms will only progress, and be harder to ignore by the affected person and those close to him or her.

COPD progression can be seen when the person has:

  • chest tightness
  • severe shortness of breath
  • wheezing, especially during exhalation
  • chronic cough with/without mucus
  • frequent respiratory infections, e.g., colds, flu
  • lack of energy
  • severe fatigue
  • weight loss
  • swelling in the lower body, i.e., ankles, feet or legs

When COPD is in the advanced stage, severe symptoms that require immediate medical attention include:

  • breathlessness / being unable to speak
  • bluish / greyish fingernails or lips, indicating low oxygen levels
  • raised heart rate
  • confusion and feeling faint

The link between COPD and COVID-19

A recent documentary by NHK World, Japan, has shown that people with COPD are more susceptible to COVID-19, due to the impaired function of the cilia in the bronchus.

In the documentary, Japanese respiratory disease expert, Professor Kurosawa Hajime, said, “Generally COPD patients are more susceptible to viral infections. In particular, in cases with the novel coronavirus, the risk of falling into severe illness is found to be high.”

“According to the latest statistical analysis, COPD patients are 5 times more likely to develop serious COVID-19.”

“Based on international guidelines COPD affects 380 million people worldwide. It is estimated that 3 million deaths are caused by COPD each year. The WHO estimates it is now the 4th leading cause of death. It is projected to become the 3rd leading cause in the future. We should keep in mind that COPD is a disease that should not be underestimated.”

When asked what problems can occur when COPD patients contract COVID-19, Professor Kurosawa said, “First of all, the infection could be overlooked because the symptoms are similar to that of COPD. And secondly, the originally damaged lungs induce further serious condition.”

Common symptoms of COVID-19 and COPD are shortness of breath or breathing difficulty, coughing and mucus hypersecretion.

Readers who are keen to watch the whole documentary can look it up in NHK World’s video section.

Please note information provided in this article is in no way to be taken as medical advice, which should be left to a qualified medical practitioner who can also provide advice on COPD treatment options.

By Aaron
25th August 19:50 2020

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