COPD is a name given to one of several chronic lung diseases that affects your ability to breathe and may be life-threatening. The pathophysiology of the disease, or the physical changes of COPD, starts with damage to the airways and air sacs in the lungs. It progresses to a cough with mucus and eventually to difficulty breathing.
The two main conditions under COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. They affect different parts of the lungs, but both lead to difficulty breathing. In order to understand COPD’s pathophysiology, it’s important to get to know the structure of the lungs completely.
Emphysema is a disease of the alveoli. The fibers that make up the walls of the alveoli are damaged, making them less elastic and unable to work when you exhale. If the bronchioles become inflamed, they produce more mucus. This is bronchitis. If the bronchitis persists, you can develop chronic bronchitis. You can also have temporary bouts of acute bronchitis, but these episodes are not considered COPD.
The main cause of COPD is smoking. Breathing in smoke and dangerous chemicals can injure the airways and air sacs, leaving you vulnerable to COPD. Exposure to secondhand smoke, chemicals, and even cooking oils in badly ventilated buildings may also lead to lung diseases.
Serious symptoms of COPD usually don’t appear until the last stage of the disease. As COPD affects your lungs’ health, you may find yourself short of breath after minor physical exertion. If you breath harder than usual after a common activity, such as climbing stairs, you should see your doctor. Tests of your respiratory health can reveal conditions such as bronchitis and emphysema.
One of the reasons why breathing becomes more challenging is because more mucus is produced in the lungs. The bronchioles become inflamed and narrower as a result. With more mucus in the airways, less oxygen is being inhaled and reaching the capillaries in the lungs. Coughing to help release the mucus from the lungs is a common sign of COPD. If you notice that you’re coughing more and producing more mucus, you should definitely see a doctor. You can’t assume that your nagging cough is harmless.
Other Signs of COPD Progress
As COPD progresses, many complications can follow. In addition to coughing, you may notice yourself wheezing when you breathe. The buildup of mucus and the narrowing of the bronchioles and alveoli may also cause chest tightness.
Less oxygen circulating throughout your body may leave you feeling fatigued. And the lack of energy can be a symptom of many conditions, but it’s an important detail to share with your doctor, as it may help determine the seriousness of your condition. In very serious COPD patients, weight loss can also occur.
One of the easiest ways to prevent COPD is to stop or never start smoking. Even if you’ve smoked for many years, you can start to preserve your lung health the minute you stop smoking. The longer you go without smoking, the greater your odds of avoiding COPD, no matter what age you quit.
It’s also important to have regular check-ups and follow the advice of your healthcare providers. While there are no guarantees when it comes to COPD, you can take steps to maintain better lung function if you’re proactive about your health.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: March 3, 2017 | Last Modified: March 3, 2017
What is COPD? http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/. Accessed August 19, 2015.
William MacNee. Pathology, pathogenesis, and pathophysiology. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1463976/. Accessed August 19, 2015.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. http://www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/pulmonary/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease/. Accessed August 19, 2015.
Mayo Clinic Staff. COPD: Causes. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/causes/con-20032017. Accessed August 19, 2015.