COPD – When it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe | Knowledge & Environment | DW

According to the World Health Organization (WHO)More than 3 million people die each year from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

The term COPD refers to various lung diseases. The airways become narrow, clogged and inflamed. Those affected find it difficult to breathe. COPD cannot be cured, but there are therapies. In this way, the disease can at least be brought under control.

“It’s by no means a death sentence. Many people live with COPD into their 70s, 80s or 90s,” says Albert A. Rizzo, Chief Physician of the American Lung Association.

Chronic bronchitis also falls under the term COPD, as does emphysema. You can have both, which also means a diagnosis of COPD. Emphysema causes the lung tissue to gradually become damaged and the tiny air sacs, called alveoli, to break apart. With chronic bronchitis, mucus builds up in the airways, making it difficult to breathe. Bronchitis also causes coughing and can further damage the lungs.

How many people suffer from COPD?

COPD is more common in low- and middle-income countries and accounts for 90% of deaths in people under the age of 70. The number of COPD patients is highest in the countries of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. This shows a study in the journal The Lancet has been published.

In the United States, COPD was the fourth leading cause of death in 2018. Almost 16 million Americans had it like that US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informed. In the US, more women than men are affected by COPD, and according to the American Lung Association, women also have a higher mortality rate than men. It is estimated that around 36 million people in Europe suffer from COPD.

Causes and risks of COPD

People who smoke cigarettes, e-cigarettes or cigars have a higher risk of developing COPD than people who do not smoke. About 75% of COPD cases are diagnosed in smokers or people with a history of it. When you smoke a cigarette, thousands of harmful chemicals are inhaled. They can cause inflammation, damage tissue, and narrow the airways. These are all characteristics of COPD.

Anyone who is exposed to chemicals, dust or smoke over a longer period of time at work also increases their risk of chronic lung disease. COPD can also develop in those with long-term exposure to severe air pollution, such as from traffic, factories, coal-fired power plants, or forest fires.

A rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) can lead to respiratory disease at a young age. It affects the body’s production of a protein (alpha-1) that helps protect the lungs.

But even people who have never smoked can develop COPD. Respiratory tract infections in childhood favor COPD as well as asthma or increasing age – after the age of 40, the risk increases.

Symptoms of COPD

COPD develops gradually and gets worse over time. The most common symptoms of COPD are shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic cough and fatigue. Over time, breathing becomes increasingly difficult and interferes with daily life. This can go so far that people with COPD are dependent on oxygen cylinders.

Bacterial or viral infections can cause unexpected flare-ups or a sudden worsening of symptoms.

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In addition, there is a risk that COPD increases the risk of other health problems. These include, for example, lung infections and lung cancer, heart problems, weakened muscles and bones. Last but not least, the disease can lead to psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.

What therapies are there for COPD?

There is currently no cure for COPD, but the disease can be treated. The first thing to do is to avoid risk factors such as smoking or air pollution. Smoking cessation is an essential part of the American Lung Association-recommended COPD treatment plan. Everyone who suffers from the respiratory disease needs treatment that is tailored specifically to them. Therefore, those affected should always consult their doctor.

Drugs that open the airways are often used to treat COPD. These include, for example, bronchodilators, they facilitate airflow and improve breathing. Steroids reduce airway swelling. Since COPD can often lead to lung infections and occurs in flares, the doctor can also prescribe antibiotics in these cases.

In addition, there are various rehabilitation programs with exercises to strengthen breathing, healthier nutrition, more exercise, intensive counseling. Overall, a greater knowledge about the disease is conveyed. Surgery may improve breathing for people with very severe COPD.

How can you prevent COPD?

There’s no way to protect yourself from the disease, but according to the American Lung Association, you can reduce your risk of developing COPD.

If you don’t smoke, you’re already taking precautions. Whenever possible, other sources of smoke, pollutants and chemicals should be avoided. Protection against respiratory infections such as influenza, COVID-19 or pneumonia can be achieved through vaccination.

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A study in the Journal Thorax was published shows that good physical condition and regular exercise in middle age can significantly reduce the risk of COPD.

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