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What is Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease?

By J.L. Drede
Updated May 17, 2024
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Chronic obstructive lung disease, or COLD, is a term that refers to a group of disease that effect the ability of a person to breathe. It goes by many names in the medical community, including chronic obstructive respiratory disease (CORD), chronic obstructive airway disease (COAD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and chronic airflow limitation (CAL). It is a progressive condition with no cure and is one of the leading causes of death worldwide.

Chronic obstructive lung disease is actually a combination of multiple conditions. Conditions can include bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Each of these conditions have their own symptoms, which do not normally become noticeable until damage to the lungs has become severe.

Chronic bronchitis is found in all cases of chronic obstructive lung disease. This condition involves the swelling of the lining that makes up the airways in the lungs, which leads to the development of mucus. Chronic bronchitis is differentiated by regular bronchitis in that it lasts for several months at a time and occurs more than once over the course of two years. The main symptom of chronic bronchitis is a persistent cough, yellowish sputum, and the need to clear the throat repeatedly in the morning. In later stages, recurring respiratory infections are common, as is a consistent shortness of breath.

Shortness of breath is also a symptom of emphysema, another disease that contributes to chronic obstructive lung disease. Emphysema is the swelling of the passageways in the lungs that is responsible for the passage of air. As the swelling increases, it eventually leads to the destruction of lung tissue, leading to those with it to suffer from feelings of tightness in the chest and wheezing.

The final condition that makes up chronic obstructive lung disease is chronic asthma, although it is not present in all cases. Asthma is the inflammation of the airways in the lungs, which restricts airflow and leads to wheezing and shortness of breath, much like bronchitis and emphysema. Unlike those diseases, asthma can be treated more effectively with inhalers and other anti-inflammatory medication. It is less serious than the other conditions but can still lead to serious complications, such as permanent airway obstructions and tissue scarring.

The number one cause of chronic obstructive lung disease in the United States is smoking. Some studies suggest that at least 15% of long-term smokers will develop the disease, and they are more likely to die from it than nonsmokers who have it. Once a smoker develops symptoms, it is highly recommended they quit smoking as soon as possible to help improve their chances of long-term survival. Air pollution, second hand smoke, and a rare genetic disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can also lead to chronic obstructive lung disease.

There are many different treatments for chronic obstructive lung disease. Inhaled steroids, antibiotics and other medications can be used to strengthen the lungs and help prevent damage to the pulmonary system. The use of oxygen tanks or pulmonary rehabilitation may also help to improve lung capacity and restore quality of life. In some cases a lung transplant may be a viable option, but the long-term side effects of such a surgery may not make the procedure worth the risk.

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