What Is COPD?
What Happens in Your Lungs With COPD
COPD is characterized by changes in your airways and the air sacs in your lungs. These changes, which all reduce your ability to breathe easily, include:
- Less elasticity of the lungs, meaning that your airways can't expand as well as they used to when you breathe.
- Destruction of tissue walls between the air sacs (or alveoli), which means there is less ability to take in oxygen from air.
- Swelling of your airways due to irritation of the lining.
- Production of a greater amount of mucus, which then makes it harder to breathe.
The Timeline of COPD
For most people, COPD takes many years to become very limiting. Unfortunately, says Dr. Edelman, many people do not talk to their doctor when they first become aware of the earliest signs and symptoms, such as shortness of breath. Many mistakenly believe this is a natural part of aging or slowing down, or they may think it doesn't matter because they are only feeling breathless during or after exercise. This is why many people don’t get diagnosed until COPD has progressed.
"Anybody who is at risk for COPD — that is anybody who has ever smoked — and anybody who is short of breath for any reason, even if they haven't smoked, should talk to their doctor and request a test we call spirometry. It's a simple test that measures how well you breathe," says Edelman. Depending on the results of that test, you might need further testing to find out if you have COPD or another lung disorder.
Initially you may only have COPD symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath when you’re physically active. Periods when symptoms become worse are called COPD flares, or exacerbations. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath may occur even at rest and flares may occur more frequently.
Although it is a chronic condition, there are many ways to live well with COPD and keep the condition from progressing. Gaining a better understanding of COPD can help you make choices that will prolong your health and improve your quality of life.
Video: What is COPD? Animated Explanation Video
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