How Does COPD Affect the Lungs and Respiratory System?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic clinical condition that affects the respiratory system. It is a progressive disease, meaning the clinical characteristics worsen over time.
The most common symptom of COPD is difficulty breathing. During the course of the disease, the obstruction in the respiratory system tends to decline, making the symptoms more troublesome.
It is the 4th leading cause of death in the United States.1 So, why is such a deadly disease so widespread, and how can it be prevented and treated?
How Does COPD Affect the Respiratory System?
The impact of COPD on the respiratory system is mostly irreversible. It permanently damages the lungs and airways. One of the main functions of the respiratory system is delivering oxygen to the body and removing carbon dioxide. As a result of COPD, blood oxygen levels decrease, while carbon dioxide accumulates in the body.
The leading cause of COPD is cigarette smoke (first-hand or second-hand); however, other air pollutants may be the reason for COPD as well. Other risk factors increasing the chance of developing COPD include age and poorly controlled asthma. Also, the disease may develop due to a genetic predisposition – alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.2
However, COPD’s clinical condition does not occur spontaneously. Instead, it has been developed over many years.
What is COPD?
The primary constructs of the respiratory system are the lungs and airways, and its primary function is transporting the air from the environment to the body and vice versa. For this process to be successful, airways should be stretchy and elastic. The endpoints of airways (bronchi) are the air sacks (alveoli), where the transportation of air to the bloodstream (and vice versa) takes place.
COPD affects airways on the level of bronchi, alveoli, or both. The airways become inflamed, leading to the airway walls’ thickening, making them less elastic and stretchy. Also, airways produce more mucus, eventually blocking air transport. As a result, more and more alveoli are being destroyed – a process due to which COPD is an irreversible and progressive disease.3
What Parts of the Lungs Are Affected by COPD?
The complex changes in the respiratory system during COPD development do not occur spontaneously and altogether. Instead, these changes occur at different parts of the respiratory system, thus, demonstrating other clinical characteristics. Depending on the part of the airways affected, two main types of COPD are differentiated – chronic bronchitis and emphysema. People with COPD have one of these conditions alone or develop one after another. Based on that, the disease intensity, clinical signs, and prognosis differ from case to case.
Chronic bronchitis is defined by continuous inflammation of the bronchi (airways). During this process, the airways’ walls become thickened, inflamed, and narrowed, producing excessive mucus.
Emphysema is defined by irreversible damage to the alveoli and the wall between them. As a result, fewer alveoli become available to perform air transport from lungs to blood and vice versa.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?
Patients usually do not feel any symptoms during the first stages of COPD development. The clinical signs of COPD are demonstrated once the disease becomes severe. These signs include:
- Shortness of breath
- Whistling sound while breathing
- Cough with an excessive mucus
- Tightness in the chest
- Frequent respiratory infections that worsen the symptoms
Are the Effects of COPD on the Respiratory System Reversible?
No, the effects of COPD on the respiratory system are not reversible. Even though airway narrowing and swelling can be temporarily relieved with certain medications, the lung damage described above is irreversible.
Moreover, it tends to worsen over time, and if certain steps are not followed, this process is continued faster and more intensely.
Even though the condition is irreversible, specific steps can be taken to slow the disease’s progression.
These steps include managing the disease appropriately (e.g., taking medications, oxygen therapy) and avoiding cigarette smoke and other air pollutants.
FAQs About COPD’s Effects on the Respiratory System
Does COPD affect the upper respiratory system?
No, COPD does not affect the upper respiratory system. The latter includes the nose, nasal cavity, mouth, throat, and voice box. Meanwhile, COPD affects the lower respiratory tract.
What is the most common cause of death in COPD?
The most common cause of death in COPD is acute or chronic respiratory failure.
What are the signs that COPD is getting worse?
COPD flare-ups, also known as exacerbations, are the main signs of COPD worsening. During COPD flare-ups, patients experience symptoms more intensely than usual, so hospitalization or an emergency room visit is often required.
What happens in the last stages of COPD?
The last stages of COPD, also known as end-stage COPD, are accompanied by constant shortness of breath and lack of energy. COPD flare-ups become more common and intense and start without a noticeable trigger.
How fast does COPD progress?
There is no exact time limit for COPD. However, the disease can progress much slower if specific actions are undertaken.
COPD is a chronic clinical condition that affects the respiratory system. It permanently damages the lungs and airways. Nevertheless, the disease is developed over many years.
COPD affects airways on the level of bronchi, alveoli, or both. The airways become inflamed, leading to the airway walls’ thickening, making them less elastic and stretchy.
Depending on the part of the airways affected, two main types of COPD are differentiated – chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Even though the condition is irreversible, specific steps can be taken to slow the disease’s progression.
- COPD | Disease or Condition of the Week | CDC. Accessed September 26, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/copd/index.html
- Berry CE, Wise RA. Mortality in COPD: Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention. COPD. 2010;7(5):375. doi:10.3109/15412555.2010.510160
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Overview. Published online March 14, 2019. Accessed September 26, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK315789/
About the Author
After working as a paramedic and emergency physician, Arno has already shifted into healthcare research and medical writing for five years. While working as Healthcare Programs Coordinator, his research topics include community health and organizational healthcare. Simultaneously Arno is involved in academic writing and uses blog posts as a platform to transfer knowledge to the general audience.
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