COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a chronic, progressive, disease of the lungs. Those who suffer from COPD generally have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Sufferers find it difficult to breathe, a symptom that becomes increasingly worse. The main cause of COPD is smoking, although it is believed that a number of environmental factors, including exposure to asbestos, have a role to play in the disease as well.

About COPD

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that around 12 million people receive a COPD diagnosis every year. Furthermore, they estimate that another 12 million have the condition but haven’t been diagnosed yet. Also, they have listed COPD as the fourth leading cause of death in the country.

In most cases, a diagnosis of COPD happens in people over the age of 40. Once diagnosed, prognosis is usually between 12 and 18 years, although it depends on how severe the disease is. While progressive, it is a slowly developing condition. Common symptoms include:

• Increased mucus production
• Coughing
• Shortness of breath
• Difficulty in sleeping
• Wheezing
• Tightness in the chest

As the disease progresses, these symptoms become worse, as the elasticity of the lung tissue becomes compromised. People with COPD can also develop a number of complications. These include:

• Heart attacks
• High blood pressure
• Respiratory infections like pneumonia

Asbestos and COPD

It is believed that people who have asbestosis are more like to develop COPD, particularly if they also smoke or have done so in the past. Similarly, patients with mesothelioma, which is a cancer caused exclusively by asbestos exposure, are also more likely to have COPD.

COPD is known to be caused by inhaling foreign substances, mainly cigarette smoke. However, inhaling toxic irritants in the work place is also a significant factor. Asbestos was long used across a range of jobsites, and those who inhaled the fibers have gone on to develop COPD. At the same time, some of them developed COPD due to smoking, and the weakened condition of their lungs meant that the damage done by asbestos was made worse.

A number of scientific studies have demonstrated that there are clear links between COPD and asbestos:

• A study involving 316,729 construction workers in Sweden showed a two and a half times higher mortality rate of COPD if they had also had exposure to asbestos or other toxic dust. Even those who had never smoked were at risk of developing it.

• The Environmental Health Journal estimates that some 3,804,000 years of life around the world have been lost as a result of COPD caused by occupational dust exposure.

Symptoms of COPD

Because COPD is a slowly progressing disease, early symptoms are often overlooked. However, these symptoms do get worse over time. Commonly, people suffer from excessive coughing with a lot of mucus, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, frequent colds and flu, edema, low muscle endurance, and weight loss. Later on, the symptoms become much worse. In most severe cases, people may experience:

• Low level of blood oxygen leading to gray or blue fingernails and lips
• Rapid heartbeat
• Lack of mental alertness
• Difficulty in breathing and talking

These symptoms will continue to get worse until the patient finally succumbs to the disease.

COPD Diagnosis

By the time people go to their physicians and are found to have symptoms of COPD, they have usually already reached the second or third stage of the disease, with the fourth being the final one. The physician will ask about the family history, the symptoms that are present, and the medical history, including whether or not they smoke or have smoked, and whether they may have been exposed to environmental pollutants. Various tests can be performed to determine lung function and health. The most important test is the spirometry test. This measures how much and how quickly someone is able to exhale. Additionally, patients may be provided with medication to further open the airways.

Patients who smoke or have smoked are usually offered the spirometry test to determine whether they are already in the early stages of COPD. This can ensure that other conditions, such as asthma or heart failure, are ruled out or detected.

Sometimes, physicians will request a CT scan or chest x-ray as well. This will help to rule out heart failure and determine how much damage has been done. Furthermore, if the doctor suspects that mesothelioma, asbestosis or another asbestos-related illness is present, this could show up on an x-ray as well.
Finally, blood oxygen will be measured. In COPD patients, these levels are very low. This is tested through an arterial blood gas test. If these levels are too low, it is possible that oxygen therapy will be prescribed to the patient.

COPD Treatment

At present, there is no cure for COPD. However, treatment options do exist that help manage the condition and slow down the worsening of the symptoms. It is very important to clearly follow the treatment recommendations provided by your physician in order to retain a significant quality of life. If you also suffer from an asbestos-related illness, following these recommendations is even more important. Treatment options include:

• Lifestyle changes. It is vital that those with COPD quit smoking, and that they also avoid secondhand smoke. Furthermore, they should eat a healthy, balanced, nutritious diet and engage in the right kind of physical activity. Because COPD patients suffer from shortness of breath, an exercise plan has to be devised by a trained specialist.
• Medication. Usually, a bronchodilator will be provided to enable more oxygen to enter the blood. As COPD progresses, the bronchodilator inhaler may be mixed with steroids, which help to lessen inflammation. Antibiotics are often prescribed, sometimes preventatively in order to avoid other conditions, such as pneumonia and influenza, as well as other respiratory infections.
• Oxygen therapy. This helps to increase blood oxygen levels. Patients will have to carry an oxygen tank with them and wear a face mask or nasal prongs. In earlier stages of the condition, a few treatments per day will be needed. In later stages, permanent treatment may be required.
• Surgery. Very rarely, surgery will be offered to COPD patients. In some cases, a bullectomy will be performed, which means a part of the lung is removed. Even more rarely, a full lung transplant may be offered.

It is also important, if you have COPD, that your home environment is changed to ensure that breathing is easier. This means the air should not be cold or polluted with smoke. Additionally, the number of hypoallergenic fabrics and materials should be increased, and dust exposure should be avoided. It is also recommended that patients join support groups to receive help from fellow sufferers.