COPD is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is a disease that affects the way our lungs should work.
The major cause of COPD is smoking, and in the United States approximately 12 million people have been diagnosed with COPD and it is suspected that a similar amount of people suffer from this same illness but have not yet been diagnosed. It has become the fourth cause of death and may go up in the scale as the population grows older (baby boomers for example), many of whom are or were smokers.
Another important point is that it is a progressive disease, which means it grows worse in time which is why it is classified as a chronic illness. Chronic means that it develops and worsens over time, while acute implies a severe and sudden onset of the illness – a heart attack or the breaking of a bone, for example. In chronic illnesses there can be acute attacks: in the case of COPD an acute attack of shortness of breath can be very complicated.
As we breath in and out, our lungs inflate, the air goes down the windpipe and into airways (bronchial tubes). Imagine these airways as branches of a small tree. At the ends of these branches there are very small elastic air sacks – think of a bunch of grapes (with air instead of juice) – that inflate when we breathe in and deflate as we breathe out. These grape type air sacks are called alveoli. The breathing process makes them expand (like air balloons) and as the air is released (when we exhale) they recover their original size.
In COPD it is precisely the alveoli (bunch of grapes) that have been damaged and so in both counts, when we exhale and when we inhale, less amount of air comes in and out.
Some of the alveoli, the ones that have been affected, swell up and lose their elasticity. The airways, which would be the branches in the above description, have also been affected and are both swollen and slightly clogged as they have also been affected. Another aspect is that much more mucus is produced and this also tends to block the airways.
The end result of all this is that less air comes in and is distributed around our body. The air we breath is made up of approximately 21% oxygen, about 1% other gases, and the rest, 78%, of carbon dioxide. As less air is inhaled and distributed there is a lack of oxygen in our system and this is the major problem of COPD.
One of the ways to assist patients with COPD is by oxygen therapy but as always when concerned with medical matters you should and must refer to a professional medical practitioner.