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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

One of the nation’s most popular lifelong illnesses related to smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects the lungs and upper respiratory system. In 2008, an estimated 13.1 million American adults were living with COPD, though nearly 24 million had lung damage that may suggest an under diagnosis of the disease. Typically, it is a combination of two additional respiratory conditions, involving inflammation of the bronchial tubes and overproduction of mucus (chronic bronchitis) and damaged air sacs in the lungs (emphysema). COPD can include one or both of these illnesses, and also asthma in certain instances. When a person has COPD, airflow is blocked, and breathing becomes increasingly difficult over time.COPD

Almost always – 85 to 90 percent of the time – COPD occurs in smokers, but like other respiratory illnesses, environmental factors and genetics can also play a significant role.

Air pollution, working among dusts and chemicals, exposure to second-hand smoke, family history of the disease, socioeconomic status, and respiratory problems as a child can also cause lung impairment.

Though it may start as “just smoker’s cough” or old age, COPD can be an ultimately fatal illness, as it is noted for being the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Healthy lungs contain alveoli or air sacs, which connect to the bronchioles, the network of tiny, thin tubes branching out from the larger bronchial tubes. The air sacs are responsible for gas exchange, when oxygen moves to the capillaries and carbon dioxide moves to the alveoli. Inflation and deflation of the elastic air sacs (like small balloons) is caused by inhaling and exhaling, allowing this process to occur. In lungs with COPD, the air flow is limited to these airways for one or more reasons, which may be a loss of elasticity in the air sacs and airways, destruction of the walls between the air sacs, airways producing more mucus and becoming clogged, and the walls of the airways swelling and thickening.


Symptoms of COPD

COPD consists of a continual cough, which usually brings up mucus, and shortness of breath, typically when a person is active. Wheezing may also be present when breathing, as well as consistent chest tightness. People who have COPD are more susceptible to respiratory infections like the cold, influenza virus, or pneumonia, and may be sick with these more regularly than others. COPD symptoms manifest differently depending on the patient and which diseases are causing their COPD, like asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.

Numerous COPD patients have exacerbations, or attacks, which cause symptoms to rapidly worsen and remain painful, potentially requiring hospitalization. Exacerbations usually include coughing up more mucus than normal (of a different color and consistency), and intensified shortness of breath. Normally triggered by air pollution or infections like pneumonia and acute bronchitis, such flares are important to know how to control. Home treatment can help you avoid severe respiratory problems, though some cases require medical attention.

COPD symptoms occur in stages, from mild to very severe, which is determined by the amount of lung damage in a patient. In the very severe stages, COPD can result in intense shortness of breath, weight loss, a blueish coloration of the skin, inadequate lung function, and life-threatening attacks.


Treatment for COPD

Managing COPD is the key to stopping the disease in its tracks. Depending on the factors causing your illness, lifestyle changes may have to occur. For more severe cases, medical intervention is needed. To begin with, however, adopting a healthy routine and quitting smoking are essential. Exercising, though your breathing may suffer initially, will eventually build healthier lungs and more efficient breathing. Preventing illnesses by washing your hands, avoiding people with the cold or flu, and getting pneumonia vaccines each year can also help lessen the effects of COPD. If possible, staying away from environmental triggers such as pollution, smoke, hot humid air, cold dry air, and high altitudes. Another important course of action is learning to breathe correctly.

Medications prescribed for COPD include bronchodilators, which open the bronchial tubes and allow for better breathing, and anti-inflammatory drugs like corticosteroids. Many individuals with COPD use an inhaler to provide faster absorption into the lungs. If the disease becomes progressively worse by having both chronic bronchitis and emphysema, supplemental oxygen and mechanical ventilation may be necessary. During a flare-up, medicines and machines to encourage breathing may be administered, such as anticholinergics, beta2-antagonists, corticosteroids, and phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) inhibitors.


How Health Insurance Can Help

As COPD shares symptoms with several other illnesses, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, cystic fibrosis, and asthma, adequate diagnosis is needed. Going to a doctor immediately as you begin to feel these symptoms is essential in avoiding the destructive outcomes of COPD. Lung damage from COPD is irreversible, but the sooner you seek care and treatment, the more likely you are to have a good quality of life. Having health insurance to cover your visits, and whatever treatment is prescribed, connects you immediately to the right doctors and prescriptions for a low cost. Individuals with a chronic disease like COPD require constant treatment, which will add up very quickly.

There is always the risk that your medicines will cease to be effective, colds will worsen and last longer, and you are unable to breathe. Especially during attacks, being covered will help you avoid added stress from high hospital bills. If you don’t have a plan and need inpatient care, you may be paying around $6,600 (Healthcare Blue Book fair price) or more out-of-pocket for a 4-day stay. With coverage, hospitalizations are typically covered at a percentage of coinsurance or a several hundred dollar copay. It depends on the region and the plans available to you how much your insurance will cover. If you don’t have a plan, check rates in your area and benefits related to COPD before you select your policy.




1. American Lung Association. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Fact Sheet.

2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Is COPD?

3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?

4. WebMD. COPD Overview.

5. WebMD. COPD Symptoms.

6. WebMD. COPD Treatment Overview.


Image: Umich.edu