Do you have a bad cough or COPD?
Everyone has, at one point or another, has had a cough. While irritating, uncomfortable, and maybe even painful, a cough in itself is nothing to really worry about. Coughing is a common symptom of a variety of non-serious illnesses, like the common cold. However, a cough can sometimes be a symptom of something much more serious and worrying: COPD.
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a very serious inflammatory lung condition that is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Commonly, COPD is related to other deadly illnesses like cancer or heart disease, and because it is often misdiagnosed and/or disguised as other conditions, doctors don’t immediately suspect it.
WHAT IS COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease commonly presents as either chronic bronchitis or as emphysema, and differs from basic respiratory illnesses because COPD is the result of actual damage to the lungs. Other illnesses like the common cold, the flu, and pneumonia are the result of viruses and infections, and may have respiratory symptoms because they affect the lungs. However, a virus or an infection simply affects the lungs and isn’t actually damage in the lungs. The presence of COPD suggests there is massive damage to the lungs, which in turn start to malfunction. If you have a persistent productive cough, you may have COPD presenting as chronic bronchitis. If you are wheezing and having difficulty breathing for an extended period of time, you may have COPD presenting with emphysema.
Major symptoms of COPD include coughing, coughing up mucus, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest. A common cold may include a cough that lasts a week or two, but a cough related to COPD will usually persist for months. If you have a persistent productive cough (i.e. you are spitting something up) and experience shortness of breath after physical exertion, you may have COPD — especially if it’s mild physical exertion that shouldn’t cause you to be out of breath. Additionally, COPD causes a wheeze, which is why emphysema is a related illness. If you have a persistent, chronic wheeze or you feel as though you can’t draw a deep breath, you may have COPD.
Excessive fatigue is also related to COPD. If you’re always tired no matter how much you sleep, you should inform your doctors and ask about tests, treatments, and medications.
Because COPD is oftentimes looks like other illnesses, there are specific tests doctors can do or recommend to figure out if you have a cough, an infection, or COPD. Preliminary steps usually include a chest x-ray and lung function tests such as spirometry, which measures how much air goes into the lungs and the speed at which the air goes into and comes out of the lungs.
More complex tests doctors commonly graduate to after these initial ones include oximetry (measuring oxygen saturation in the blood) and an arterial blood gas test (to measure the amounts of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and acid in the blood). After an arterial blood gas test or oximetry, your doctor may recommend oxygen treatment.
Treatment for COPD is more about limiting symptoms and further damage than drugs or other forms of medication. People who suffer from COPD are encouraged to make positive life decisions that will slow the disease down. For example, if you are a smoker with COPD, quitting will make a significant impact on the disease, and your overall health. The same goes for those who live in areas or work at jobs that expose them to air pollution, as these kinds of environments are often a great contributor to COPD and its symptoms as well as potentially easy fixes.
Physical exercise, and generally improving your physical fitness can work miracles. Since COPD affects the lungs, doing things that improve overall cardiovascular and respiratory health is a good way to slow the disease.
For more advanced cases of COPD, treatment options include oxygen therapy and ventilation devices. Various medications exist to treat the symptoms of COPD, and, in rare cases that no drugs or treatments are helping, surgery can be an option.