What Is Advanced COPD?

Allison Boelcke

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition in which a person experiences an obstructed airway as a result of suffering from both chronic emphysema and bronchitis. Emphysema occurs when the small air sacs on the lungs become damaged, causing shortness of breath, while bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, leading to a chronic cough. COPD is often caused primarily by the excessive and long-term smoking of cigarettes. Advanced COPD refers to the later stage of the condition, in which the symptoms no longer respond to treatment and continually worsen over time.

Cigarette smoking is a common risk factor for COPD.
Cigarette smoking is a common risk factor for COPD.

As advanced COPD progresses, the decreased lung function typically leads to a variety of symptoms. Dyspnea, also more commonly referred to as shortness of breath, is one of the most common symptoms and is a result of a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. The lack of oxygen in the blood may also result in cyanosis, in which a patient’s nail beds and lips start to develop a blue appearance. Other severe symptoms may include coughing up blood due to severe irritation of the airways, drastic weight loss due to difficulty breathing and swallowing, and swelling of the ankles and feet due to increased blood pressure since blood is unable to flow properly through the lungs. These symptoms often require immediate medical attention and long-term hospitalization.

There is no proven cure for advanced COPD; therefore, as the condition progresses, flare-ups of symptoms often become more frequent and the symptoms will often gradually worsen until treatment is no longer effective. The primary objective of COPD treatment, particularly in the later stages of the condition, is to alleviate the symptoms and to take actions to prevent further worsening of the condition. When a patient seeks treatment for advanced COPD, the first treatment course recommended tends to be for him or her to stop smoking, which may help slow the destruction of the lungs. Medications, such as anti-inflammatory medications to reduce irritation in the airways, and bronchodilators to help releax the muscles to open up the airway and make breathing easier, may be given as a treatment. As the condition worsens and medication becomes ineffective, patients may be hospitalized and administered oxygen through a nasal tube or a mask worn over the face.

Advanced COPD tends to cause other complications that can lead to death. Patients with COPD are often more likely to die from lung cancer, pneumonia, or heart conditions, such as heart failure. The condition can also result in fatal respiratory failure or a pulmonary embolism, or a blockage in the blood vessels leading to the lungs. A pulmonary embolism generally prevents any blood from pumping past it and can result in death within two to three hours if not treated.

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