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COPD: Making Breathing Difficult For Millions of Americans
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a progressive disease that refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems, to include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD not only affects the 16 million Americans who have this disease, but also the millions more who are undiagnosed.
To understand COPD, it helps to get familiar with how the lungs work. The air you breathe goes down your windpipe into the bronchial tubes or airways in your lungs. The bronchial tubes branch many times into thousands of smaller, thinner tubes called bronchioles. These tubes end in bunches of tiny round air sacs called alveoli.
Small blood vessels called capillaries run along the walls of the air sacs. When air reaches them, oxygen passes through the air sac walls into the blood in the capillaries. At the same time carbon dioxide (CO2) moves from the capillaries into the air sacs where the lungs expel the CO2.
In COPD, less air flows in and out of the airways. This can be due to the airways and air sacs losing their elastic quality. The walls between many of the air sacs become damaged or thick and inflamed if the airways make more mucus than usual, becoming clogged. As a result, the air sacs lose their shape and become floppy. This damage can lead to fewer and larger air sacs instead of many tiny ones. If this happens, the amount of gas exchange in the lungs is reduced.
Most people who have COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but the severity of each condition varies from person to person. Thus, the general term COPD is more accurate.
What Causes COPD?
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke also can cause COPD, especially if the smoke is inhaled. This includes secondhand smoke. Up to 75% of people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. However, up to 25% of people with COPD never smoked. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants – such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dusts—also may contribute to COPD. People who have a family history of COPD are more likely to develop the disease if they smoke.
Next month’s article will discuss the symptoms of COPD, as well as prevention tips.
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