Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as chronic obstructive airways disease (COAD) or chronic airflow limitation (CAL), is a group of illnesses characterised by airflow limitation that is not fully reversible. The flow of air into and out of the lungs is impaired. This can be measured with breathing devices such as a peak flow meter or by spirometry. The term COPD includes the conditions emphysema and chronic bronchitis although most patients with COPD have characteristics of both conditions to varying degrees. Asthma being a reversible obstruction of airways is often considered separately, but many COPD patients also have some degree of reversibility in their airways.
In COPD, there is an increase in airway resistance, shown by a decrease in the forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) measured by spirometry. COPD is defined as a forced expiratory volume in 1 second to forced vital capacity ratio (FEV1/FVC) that is less than 0.7. The residual volume, the volume of air left in the lungs following full expiration, is often increased in COPD, as is the total lung capacity, while the vital capacity remains relatively normal. The increased total lung capacity (hyperinflation) can result in the clinical feature of a "barrel chest" - a chest with a large front-to-back diameter that occurs in some individuals with COPD. Hyperinflation can also be seen on a chest x-ray as a flattening of the diaphragm.
The most common cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. COPD is a gradually progressive condition and usually only develops after about 20 pack-years of smoking. COPD may also be caused by breathing in other particles and gases.
The diagnosis of COPD is established through spirometry although other pulmonary function tests can be helpful. A chest x-ray is often ordered to look for hyperinflation and rule out other lung conditions but the lung damage of COPD is not always visible on a chest x-ray. Emphysema, for example can only be seen on CT scan.
The main form of long term management involves the use of inhaled bronchodilators (specifically beta agonists and anticholinergics) and inhaled corticosteroids. Many patients eventually require oxygen supplementation at home. In severe cases that are difficult to control, chronic treatment with oral corticosteroids may be necessary, although this is fraught with significant side-effects.
COPD is generally irreversible although lung function can partially recover if the patient stops smoking. Smoking cessation is an essential aspect of treatment. Pulmonary rehabilitation programmes involve intensive exercise training combined with education and are effective in improving shortness of breath. Severe emphysema has been treated with lung volume reduction surgery, with some success in carefully chosen cases. Lung transplantation is also performed for severe COPD in carefully chosen cases.
Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency is a fairly rare genetic condition that results in COPD (particularly emphysema) due to a lack of the antitrypsin protein which protects the fragile alveolar walls from protease enzymes released by inflammatory processes.
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