In 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.
"In emphysema, the walls between many of the air sacs are damaged. As a result, the air sacs lose their shape and become floppy. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways is constantly irritated and inflamed," described Harp. This causes the lining to thicken. Lots of thick mucus forms in the airways, making it hard to breathe. Most people who have COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Thus, the general term "COPD" is more accurate.
Shortness of breath and cough are the most common symptoms. Severe COPD may prevent you from doing even basic activities like walking, cooking, or taking care of yourself.
COPD is a major cause of disability, and it's the third leading cause of death in the United States. COPD has no cure yet, and doctors don't know how to reverse the damage to the airways and lungs. However, treatments and lifestyle changes can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.
If you think you may have it, Harp suggested making an appointment to discuss your concerns with your primary care provider.
"If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is quit smoking and avoid lung irritation, including through secondhand smoking. Various medications, many of them inhalers, can help improve lung function. Vaccinations can protect your lungs from infections which can cause further damage. Talk with your doctor about being vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia and getting a yearly flu shot. Exercising your lungs can help them work better," Harp concluded.