COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

By Seth Lamming

From PHN Issue 44, Fall 2020

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common group of diseases that affect the lungs and airways. COPD is treatable and preventable, but it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. COPD is caused by smoking or inhaling fumes or dust over a long period of time. Sometimes genetics and environment can cause COPD, as well as untreated asthma.

The lungs are a pair of air-filled organs in the chest that allow your body to take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Air goes down the trachea (windpipe) and splits off into two bronchi (smaller windpipes) that supply each lung. The two windpipes supplying each lung branch off and get smaller and smaller, like tree roots. At the end of each airway are tiny alveoli (air sacs). Blood vessels surround the air sacs and take oxygen from them to the body.

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two major categories of COPD. Many people have a combination of both, but one type usually dominates. Chronic bronchitis is when the airways become inflamed and get narrow. The airways also release a lot of thick mucus that the body cannot clear. In emphysema, the air sacs get damaged and can no longer exchange oxygen with blood vessels in the lungs. Air gets trapped in the lungs, which causes airspaces in the lungs to get permanently enlarged. The word “obstructive” in COPD refers to air getting trapped in the lungs. Physical changes to the airway make it difficult for people with COPD to fully exhale each breath.

Continue reading