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What is COPD?


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What is COPD?

When fresh air is breathed in through the nose and mouth, it is pulled through the windpipe or trachea and into the lungs. There it moves through two large passageways, called the bronchi.

Then a complex system of much smaller tubes or bronchioles branch out to carry oxygen to the “working parts” of the lungs (i.e., millions of air sacs) called alveoli. These small sacs (like tiny folded balloons) have very thin walls that are full of blood vessels. The walls are so thin that the oxygen in the air can pass through them to enter your bloodstream and travel to cells in all parts of your body. Oxygen is required to “burn” food for the energy required by every organ of your body.

What does the term COPD mean?
It stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and refers to a problem with breathing air out from your lungs. If you have difficulty breathing “used” air out of your lungs, not enough space is left for oxygen-rich air to enter your lungs.

Until recently, most people who had COPD were grouped together and considered to have one disease. We now know that several different diseases are responsible for this difficulty in providing oxygen to the body and releasing used air (carbon dioxide) from the lungs. Asthmatic bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema are three of the major diseases that are grouped together as COPD.

Asthmatic and Chronic Bronchitis
Both asthmatic and chronic bronchitis occur when the large breathing tubes of the lungs, or bronchi, are inflamed and swollen. Imagine what happens to your skin when you’ve gotten an insect bite and it becomes swollen, red, and painful. This same idea can be applied to the swelling that occurs with bronchitis. The lining of the air tubes becomes swollen and produces large amounts of mucus. Because mucus clogs the airways, it complicates the problem, much like pus infects and irritates a wound and delays healing.

The muscles that surround the airways may tighten when they should not, causing spasms of the bronchi, or bronchospasm. These narrowed airways prevent a portion of the “used” air from leaving the lungs. Bronchospasm, inflammation, and swelling all make the space inside the airways smaller. This reduces the amount of air that can flow in and out of the lungs. It is like breathing through a straw.

The first symptom of chronic bronchitis is a persistent cough that brings up mucus. This is often followed by wheezing, shortness of breath, and frequent chest infections. Shortness of breath is caused by increased work to move air in obstructed lungs. The symptoms of bronchitis can usually be relieved or improved with treatment.