If you have COPD, you are not alone!!

COPD is one of the leading causes of death in South Africa. World-wide millions of people have been diagnosed with the disease, however, just as many people have some form of lung impairment but have not been to the doctor for a diagnosis – and many thousands more have COPD and are completely unaware. COPD may go unnoticed in its early stages because it is often confused with asthma, a bad cough, or a natural part of aging. Also, many people think of COPD as a disease that only affects the elderly, when in fact, almost 50% of patients are under the age of 65 and some people start having symptoms in their early 40s!

What is COPD?

COPD is an abbreviation for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and is a condition which is characterised by a gradual decline in lung function. In COPD there is a chronic inflammation of the airways which causes obstruction of the air flow into and out of the lungs. View an interactive tutorial that will explain COPD more clearly

COPD: What it stands for

Chronic means long-term - COPD is a condition patients live with for many years.
Obstructive means the airflow from the lungs is decreased and lung function is compromised.
Pulmonary refers to the fact that this disease affects your lungs - in fact, it affects all the tubes that take in air through your mouth and nose and into your lungs.
Disease means illness.

COPD includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. You can have one or the other. Most patients have a combination of both.
Chronic bronchitis involves narrowing of the large and small airways and inflammation.
Emphysema involves damage to the air sacs (alveoli). The lungs are less able to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen because of loss of their elasticity and air remaining trapped inside.
The graphics below explains why COPD makes it difficult to breath.

The bronchial tubes become inflamed and clogged with mucus, narrowing the airways, making it more difficult to get air into and out of the lungs. The muscles around the airways constrict, making them even tighter: this is called bronchoconstriction. Cough and phlegm is the body's attempt to clear these airways.

Deformed or destroyed alveoli interfere with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide: the amount of oxygen in the blood decreases while the amount of carbon dioxide increases. The muscles around the airways constrict, making them even tighter - bronchoconstriction. Because damaged alveoli do not "anchor" the bronchial tubes as well as they do in a healthy lung, the airways collapse, restricting airflow.

COPD Symptoms
Symptoms develop gradually and can begin in the early 40s. They may be worse some days than others, or they may be bad all the time. The important thing is to know how to identify the symptoms early and get treatment:

  • Chronic cough - It is often the first symptom of COPD to develop and sadly, it is often discounted as smoker's cough or the effect of cold weather.
  • Sputum production – people with COPD often produce sputum - also called phlegm - after coughing.
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) - In the early stages of COPD people may experience breathlessness only during strenuous activity like climbing stairs or exercising and attribute this to age or being out of shape! But gradually patients begin to feel shortness of breath even during simple activities, like walking across the room, and even at rest.

How do you know it's not Asthma?

COPD and asthma are two different conditions but they are often confused. Make sure you are getting the right treatment by knowing the difference!

• Generally begins during childhood or adolescence • Most often develops in smokers and former smokers who are in their mid-40s
• Attacks are generally intermittent and tend to resolve • Chronic (occurring all the time) and gradually gets worse over time.
• With appropriate treatment, patients can return to near-normal breathing and are usually symptom-free between attacks Patients rarely experience a day without symptoms. Airflow reduction in COPD sufferers may be partially reversible, but only if patients quit smoking and take proper medications
• In asthma there are attacks of narrowing of the airways, separated by periods of largely normal lung function. • In COPD the airways are permanently narrowed, even if the degree of narrowing may vary from one moment to the next.

Something can be done about your COPD. You can manage your COPD by taking the right steps. Take control of your health and talk with your doctor about your symptoms. The sooner you speak with your doctor, the more likely you will be to get the proper treatment and start feeling better. Your doctor will examine you and undertake a lung function test called Spirometry.

Spirometry for diagnosis of COPD
Spirometry is as important for the diagnosis of COPD as blood pressure measurements are for the diagnosis of hypertension. Spirometry should be available to all health care professionals.

What is Spirometry?
Spirometry is a simple test to measure the amount of air a person can breathe out, and the amount of time taken to do so. A spirometer is a device used to measure how effectively, and how quickly, the lungs can be emptied. A spirogram is a volume-time curve.