As with any disease of the lungs, understanding how the illness works inside the body can sometimes help you cope with some of the symptoms of the disease while you await transplantation. Before we get started, it might be helpful to review the different parts of the lungs, how they work and what they do. If you need a quick refresher, check the information we shared in an article earlier this summer titled, “How Do the Lungs Actually Work?”
Since COPD is sometimes a mixture of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, we’re going to talk about these two conditions separately.
Emphysema, as a part of COPD, means the air sacs (alveoli) are damaged. As these fragile compartments of air break down, less oxygen is absorbed when you breathe in. The walls of the air sacs become loose, and the overall surface area of the alveoli decreases. This reduces the surface area and the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed into the body.
The other aspect of COPD, chronic bronchitis, means that the bronchi (tubes leading to the air sacs) are repeatedly or constantly inflamed. With inflamed bronchi, the lungs produce unnecessary liquid in the form of mucus, and the tubes that pass air back and forth to the lungs become smaller. Bronchitis also means that more coughing will occur so that mucus will be removed from the body.
How Is COPD Diagnosed and What Does a Diagnosis Mean?Since COPD causes visible damage to the lungs as well as inflammation inside the lungs, a few imaging tests and physical tests can be done to figure out whether or not a patient has COPD. X-rays or CT scans of the lungs may be taken to see damage to the alveoli (a result of the emphysema in COPD). Another test is a spirometry test, which simply and painlessly examines breathing function.
What Should I Do After a COPD Diagnosis?As with any serious health condition, it’s important to partner closely with your health care team to effectively treat the symptoms of COPD and to monitor how frequently the symptoms occur as well as how difficult the symptoms are for you to tolerate. Some common symptoms of COPD are tightness in the chest, wheezing and coughing, mucus (fluid) expelled when coughing, and frequent chest colds.
Over time, COPD symptoms typically get worse – especially if not treated properly. While you wait for lungs to become available, there are a few simple steps that may help reduce the severity of the symptoms and help prepare your body for transplant surgery.
- If you have been diagnosed with COPD and still smoke, it’s important to try to quit smoking. Stopping smoking slows the progression of COPD and stops the constant scarring and irritation of the lungs that smoking causes.
- While it may be difficult, safely increasing physical activity can help lung function tremendously. Exercise helps to strengthen the muscles of the respiratory system, and help overall longevity as well. Talk with your transplant coordinator to learn how you can add activity to your daily routine in ways that are safe with your lung condition.
- Maintaining a healthy diet is important to overall health. While this is important for everyone, for patients awaiting lung transplant who are diagnosed with COPD it’s especially important.
For more information about COPD or steps you can take to maintain your health and prepare for transplant, please contact your Penn Lung Transplant nurse practitioner.