Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema are the two general diseases that make up COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a group of lung diseases that involve the narrowing of airways or the deterioration of certain parts of the lungs over time, causing significant breathing difficulties. COPD may also be known as COAD (Chronic Obstructive Airway Disease) and COLD (Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease). It is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
Part of the process is similar to that of asthma, wherein airborne particulates, allergens, and smoke particles can trigger the inflammatory response. However, unlike asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is something that worsens over time and is irreversible. Living with COPD is usually more debilitating and difficult than living with asthma.
The first part of this guide will cover COPD in general, since the signs, causes, and treatment of Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema are very similar in nature. The latter sections of this guide will touch on the differences between the two diseases.
Smoking is the primary cause of COPD. In general, it is airborne exposure over time that leads to the disease. This includes the fine dust byproduct of coal and metal mining, and, to a lesser extent, air pollution. Sulfur dioxide and other industrial byproducts are well-known to be COPD and asthma irritants. These irritants have been known to cause other lung issues that are distinct to COPD, but they can certainly exacerbate the development of the disease, especially in smokers. In the United States, most cases of COPD derive from smoking. This includes cigars, cigarettes, and pipe tobacco.
Some genetic factors play a role in one’s susceptibility to contract COPD from long-term lung irritant exposure. Smokers who have relatives with COPD are more likely to develop it. Furthermore, there is a certain genetic condition that plays a role in a very small portion of cases, called Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency.
Physicians and scientists are still trying to understand the process completely. There are many missing links within what the scientific community knows for sure, and research remains ongoing. There may be other causes along the general principle of long-term lung aggravation, which could include repeated infection. Many experts say that COPD occurs as a result of some kind of predisposition, such a hereditary sensitivity or recurring bacterial infection, combined with smoking or high-volume exposure of fine dusts or chemicals.
The signs of COPD differ based on intensity, level of progression, overall level of health, and the type of COPD. Specific sections for Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema follow. Here are some general symptoms and signs of COPD:
- Dyspnea – Shortness of breath; often described as feeling out of breath or being unable to take in enough air. In early COPD, this occurs during exercise or physical activity. As the disease progresses, patients may experience dyspnea at rest or during light activity.
- Weaker Breaths – In general, less intense and full breaths. Also, exhales that are longer than inhales.
- Less Airflow Volume – This is tested and determined by a physician.
- Wheezing – The production of mucus from the airways, called sputum, may cause wheezing or whistling sounds during breaths. This occurs when airways are partially obstructed
- Straining – Straining muscles or face when trying to breath
- Chronic Cough – More often in Chronic Bronchitis, but a serious sign in any case
- Blueness or Paleness – Seeing blue around the fingernails or lips indicates low oxygen levels
- Rapid Heartbeat
Acute Exacerbations of COPD are when COPD symptoms suddenly and severely worsen. They are usually triggered by bacterial infections, viral infections, or environmental pollution and irritants. Pulmonary emboli (blockages within the lungs) can also be a cause. During an acute exacerbation, breathing increases in difficulty as inflammation increases. This further reduces airflow and can lead to other severe and life-threatening conditions.
The disease is diagnosed by a physician, who will measure the exhaling capacity of the lungs using Spirometry (“measuring of breath”). Other lung function tests can be used to determine the air transfer and breathing capacity of your lungs. The most significant initial signs of COPD are dyspnea, chronic coughing, and the production of sputum. It is highly recommended that you visit an expert if you begin to experience these or any of the other symptoms we discussed.
Life expectancy for someone with COPD depends on the otherwise overall health of the patient, along with corrective measures such as quitting smoking and improving air quality. Risk factors that worsen the prognosis include being overweight, living a sedentary lifestyle, and related complications, such as respiratory failure. Living with COPD involves the risk of life-threatening complications at any time, so COPD live expectancy is very difficult to determine. Consult with your doctor to develop a plan for general living with the disease.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD and its effects are currently irreversible. However, there are many therapies, medicines, and lifestyle changes that can make a huge difference.
Rehab and Therapy
In general, bronchitis is a condition defined by bronchial inflammation. The bronchial tubes carry air to the lungs; they often secrete mucus during the inflammatory response. This is what causes difficulty breathing and wheezing, as the airways are being partially inhibited by the mucus.
Acute Bronchitis is short-term bronchitis that occurs as a result of infection or over-inhalation of fine dusts or irritants. Frequent exposure to lung irritants and pollution can make you susceptible to acute bronchitis. True acute bronchitis generally lasts for around a week, although some coughing and chest discomfort can remain for another couple of weeks. “Acute” denotes that it is an isolated case, not a chronic condition. It is usually caused by a virus, which is why antibiotics are generally not prescribed.
Chronic Bronchitis, on the other hand, is a long-term condition wherein the bronchial tubes are frequently irritated and inflamed. They remain in a state of sensitivity whereby airborne particulates, allergens, smoke, and odor particles cause severe irritation. The airways also become more vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections, which drastically worsen symptoms and levels of discomfort. Signs of chronic bronchitis include chest discomfort, wheezing, and coughing that occurs repeatedly over long periods of time.
As with COPD on the whole, the first step in treating chronic bronchitis is to quit smoking and improve the overall breathing environment as much as possible. Chronic Bronchitis treatment can also include humidifier therapy, as steam can help relax the airways and loosen up mucus. Helpful additional steps to take include moving toward a healthier diet and more active lifestyle, as well as keeping hands and surfaces clean to reduce the likelihood of contracting bacterial and viral infections. Your doctor may also prescribe some of the medicines discussed earlier in the COPD section.
The signs and symptoms of Emphysema are similar to those already discussed in the general COPD section of this guide. Just as in Chronic Bronchitis, the main cause of Emphysema is smoking, and the first step in treatment should be to quit.
Whereas Chronic Bronchitis involves inflamed airways and the production of mucus, Emphysema is characterized by damaged alveoli, the air sacs within your lungs. These sacs are very thin and sensitive. Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis may occur together.
COPD is a group of diseases that, by definition, involves a perpetual respiratory sensitivity to airborne particulates, allergens, and odors. Just as for those with severe asthma or allergies, an air purifier can be of great relief to those with respiratory sensitivities.
A HEPA filter is certified to be able to remove 99.97% of particles larger than 0.3 microns that pass through it. For reference, human hairs range from about 17 to almost 200 microns in width. HEPA filters are very effective against pollen, mold spores, dust particles, pet dander, and many other irritants. HEPA air purifiers are commonly used by people with allergies and asthma.
Getting rid of smoke and other odors is more complicated, however, since these particles are usually much smaller than 0.3 microns and steadfastly cling to walls, carpet, and furniture. Removing smoke odor usually requires a combination of scrubbing and washing in addition to air filtration technology. For smoke and odors, we use an adsorbent material that traps these particles in tiny pores. Usually, this material is called activated Carbon or Zeolite. Models that contain these materials are called VOC air purifiers.
For people with specific allergies, a HEPA filter is usually enough. However, COPD is a much more broad respiratory sensitivity, and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are just as serious of an irritant as larger particles. An air purifier for Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema should have both a HEPA filter and a VOC canister. Ask your doctor if he or she recommends an air purifier as a supplement to your COPD treatment regimen. For more information on air purifiers, see our Air Purifier Buying Guide.