Being out of breath can be one of the scariest feelings in the world. And a COPD diagnosis can be even scarier. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease can mean fear and uncertainty for patients and families, and with good reason. According to the American Lung Association, it’s the third leading cause of death in the U.S. However, the good news is, while COPD is not curable, it is manageable, and many patients have productive lives for years after diagnosis.
What Diagnoses Are Included in COPD?
Some of the most common chronic lung conditions, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and non-reversible asthma all fall under the COPD umbrella. COPD is one of the most common chronic illness diagnoses, affecting 12 million Americans according to the NIH. But it can be successfully treated and managed, and working with your primary care practice and lung specialists to come up with a management plan is key.
What Are the Stages of COPD?
COPD is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. The Lung Institute has identified four stages of the condition based on symptoms and lung function:
- Mild: the first signs of COPD may be slight limitations in breathing. Patients often overlook these early warning signs.
- Moderate: this phase usually brings more limited breathing along with chronic coughing and mucus production.
- Severe: phase three is when patients generally see significant disruption to their lives as breathing becomes more limited and daily tasks become harder.
- Very severe (also known as end-stage COPD): this phase is marked by very low blood oxygen and restricted airflow. When patients can’t get enough oxygen, breathing issues become life-threatening, and supplemental oxygen often comes into play.
What Causes COPD?
Smoking plays a big role in COPD, but it’s important to note that not all COPD patients are smokers–and not all smokers get COPD. According to the NIH, genetic and environmental factors also play a role. Some other factors include air pollution and chemicals and fumes in the workplace. Studies have also suggested a link between obesity and COPD.
When Should I See a Doctor About COPD?
According to the COPD Foundation, the main symptoms include:
- Increased shortness of breath
- Frequent coughing (with and without mucus)
- Tightness in the chest
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your primary care practice.
How Is COPD Diagnosed?
According to the Mayo Clinic, lung function tests are the main way of diagnosing COPD. Your primary care practice can use a tool called a spirometer to measure the amount of air your lungs can hold and how fast you can blow air out of your lungs. Chest X-rays or CT scans can also be useful tools for identifying emphysema, one of the main illnesses within the COPD umbrella.
How Can I Prevent COPD?
Quitting smoking (or never starting in the first place) is the number one step we can take to prevent COPD. Other prevention tips include:
- Avoiding workplace pollutants and taking safety precautions like wearing a mask when necessary.
- Exercising regularly
- Eating healthy foods and keeping weight at recommended levels
- Seeing your primary care doctor regularly for check-ups
What Treatments Are Available for COPD?
Experts agree that the most important treatment tool for COPD is to stop smoking. Your primary care physician can give you the tools you need to quit, including medications and referrals to specialized therapists. Other treatments include:
Medications including inhaled steroids that reduce airway inflammation and bronchodilators that relax the muscles around the airways and oral steroids, along with antibiotics when infections occur.
Supplemental oxygen when oxygen levels become low.
Pulmonary rehabilitation programs including exercise, breathing techniques and nutrition.
How Can My Primary Care Provider Help Manage COPD?
Your primary care provider is an important partner in your journey with COPD. Spirometry is now available in most primary care practices, and according to the NIH, this is helping with crucial early diagnosis and treatment of this daunting disease. Your primary care practice also:
- Monitors lung function
- Prescribes and help you manage your medications
- Keeps you up to date on flu and pneumonia vaccines, essential to staying healthy with COPD
- Follows up regarding nutrition and can refer you to a nutritionist if necessary
- Can recommend a pulmonologist, or lung specialist, to support your care
At Comprehensive Primary Care, our focus is on keeping patients healthy with excellent preventive care and routine visits. When patients are diagnosed with chronic illness, our goal is to help them lead healthy and productive lives while managing their conditions. A COPD diagnosis is a challenge of course, but with thorough and compassionate primary care, patients can live rich and functional lives and enjoy the gift of time with family and friends.