What to Know About COPD and Oxygen Therapy
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. As many as 16 million people have been diagnosed with it. Others probably have COPD, but their condition has not yet been diagnosed. COPD is a respiratory disease that makes it hard for a person to breathe. It also is referred to as emphysema or chronic bronchitis. It is progressive, meaning that it usually gets worse over time. Although there are some things a person can do to manage COPD, no cure is currently available. In some cases, lifestyle changes can improve a person’s ability to cope with the disease. In other cases, it is necessary to undergo some type of therapy that has been shown to be effective in managing COPD.
One of the leading causes of COPD is smoking. The majority of patients who have COPD either smoke now or have smoked in the past. However, as many as 25 percent of patients have never smoked. Another possible cause of COPD is exposure to chemicals and substances that irritate the lungs. This includes dust, chemical fumes and air pollution. In some patients, COPD may be caused by a rare genetic condition.
What is COPD?
When a person breathes, air goes down the windpipe into the bronchial tubes in the lungs. The bronchial tubes subdivide into many thinner, smaller tubes known as bronchioles which bunch up around air sacs. Within the walls of the air sacs are small blood vessels called capillaries. When a person breathes in oxygen, the oxygen passes through the walls of the air sac into blood within the capillaries. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide, a waste byproduct, moves into the air sacs from the capillaries. This process is typically referred to as gas exchange. Simply put, oxygen is breathed in and CO2 is breathed out. There are several reasons why a person who has COPD may have difficulty with this process, as described below.
Normally, air sacs have the ability to stretch like a small balloon when filling up with air. However, the air sacs in patients with COPD may have lost some of their elasticity. It also is possible that the walls between the air sacs have suffered damage, are inflamed, or have become thick or clogged. Emphysema results when the walls between the air sacs have lost their shape and become floppy. The walls of the air sacs also may be damaged, which reduces the amount of gas exchange. When the airways lining becomes inflamed or irritated, the lining swells and becomes filled with mucus, making it difficult to breathe. This condition is known as chronic bronchitis. Some people have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Since the condition varies from person to person, the term COPD is used to refer to either condition.
What Are Some of the Symptoms of COPD?
COPD does not come on a person suddenly. Rather, it develops over time. As it progresses, symptoms get worse and a person’s ability to perform routine activities may be curtailed. This can even affect such basic routines as walking. Some of the more common symptoms are:
- A persistent cough that produces a lot of mucus, sometimes referred to as a smoker’s cough
- Shortness of breath, especially when a person exerts themselves physically
- A wheezing sound associated with breathing
- Tightness of chest
The symptoms listed above may worsen over time. Persistent flare-ups often require prescription-drug treatments, such as steroids or antibiotics. Extreme flare-ups may require hospitalization, or at least a trip to the emergency room or urgent care facility. The severity of a person’s symptoms will depend on how much damage has already been done to their lungs.
When a person’s symptoms are mild, they may not even notice them. Even when they do, a few lifestyle changes may eliminate some of the problems. One example of this would be taking an elevator instead of the stairs. Severe COPD can produce more pronounced symptoms, such as weight loss, low muscle endurance, and swelling in a person’s extremities. Some COPD symptoms are serious enough that they may require hospitalization. Here are some of those more severe symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or talking
- Lips or fingernails turning blue or gray
- Mental fatigue
- Rapid heartbeat
What is Oxygen Therapy?
Human beings need oxygen to survive and for organs to function properly. Oxygen therapy is a treatment that delivers oxygen to areas that have been deprived of it by COPD or other illnesses. The oxygen can be delivered several different ways, including a face mask or tubes resting on the nose, trachea, or windpipe. The result of oxygen therapy is that the lungs receive more oxygen which can then be delivered to the blood.
Oxygen therapy is commonly given in a hospital setting, but it can be given at home. The oxygen is stored in some type of container or tank that is refillable. One type of oxygen therapy uses an oxygen concentrator to extract oxygen from the air for immediate use. With this type of oxygen therapy, there is no need to refill tanks, and the user will not have to worry about running out of oxygen.
Why Is Oxygen Therapy Helpful for COPD Patients?
Because the human body is so dependent on oxygen, oxygen therapy can help COPD patients in several ways.
1. Reduce Shortness of Breath
Although oxygen therapy may not completely take away a person’s shortness of breath, it can help them feel less breathless when they are performing everyday activities.
2. Reduce Fatigue
When the body is deprived of oxygen, a person feels fatigued. Even simple chores such as household duties can make a person feel exhausted. Oxygen therapy can increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream which can improve overall energy levels.
3. Improve Sleep
People with COPD often have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep due to the lack of oxygen in their lungs and in their bloodstream. Oxygen therapy has been shown to help COPD patients sleep better, especially during REM sleep.
4. Produce a More Active Lifestyle
In order to stay active, a person needs to receive a sufficient supply of oxygen. Without enough oxygen in a person’s lungs and bloodstream, fatigue can set in. Oxygen therapy provides supplemental oxygen which gives a person more energy and helps them to stay active.
Anyone who has been diagnosed with COPD owes it to themselves to more fully investigate oxygen therapy to see if it could help them improve their quality of life.