COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer. Lung cancer is the #1 leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. More on that another day.
Smoking is the primary cause of lung cancer and COPD. It is one of the causes of heart disease. This blog is not going to be a diatribe against smoking. You all know it’s bad for you. You all know you should quit or not start. Enough said. Oh, as an aside, smoking marijuana is as bad for your lungs as is tobacco. Think twice before you smoke marijuana recreationally.
Dying from lung disease is very unpleasant. Yes, I’ve seen it. I’ll spare you the graphic details. Instead I’ll tell you what happens to the lungs in COPD and let you think about it.
First, a very brief anatomy lesson (with apologies to my anatomy professors). You have two lungs, one on each side of your heart in your chest cavity. The lung on the left side has two lobes and extends further down that the right lung, in order to make room for the heart, which tilts slightly to the left. The lung on the right has three lobes and does not tilt downward, in order to make room for the liver, which is below the diaphragm. Each lobe of the lungs is further divided into segments.
As you breathe, the air travels from your nose into your trachea, basically a tube in your throat. The trachea branches left and right into the left bronchus and the right bronchus (plural: bronchi), which divide into ever smaller tubes, called bronchioles. Imagine a tree with ever smaller branches. Each bronchiole ends in an air sac called an alveolus (plural: alveoli – I am so glad I took Latin in high school). This is where the air you breathe ends up.
Your blood vessels also get smaller and smaller as they enter the lungs. The smallest blood vessels, which should be full of gaseous waste products, transfer the waste into the alveoli and pick up oxygen from the alveoli. So, if your lungs are healthy, you breathe in oxygen and breathe out waste.
COPD is actually a pair of lung diseases: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In emphysema, the walls of the alveoli have been damaged and either the alveoli can’t contract enough to expel the waste or the walls are too thick to go through the exchange process. In chronic bronchitis (-itis at the end of a word means inflammation), the irritated bronchial tree secretes mucus, lots of mucus. Eventually there is so much mucus that the individual with chronic bronchitis can’t expel it all. This interferes with breathing.
Both emphysema and chronic bronchitis progress slowly. But the end is an inability to breath, either because oxygen and waste can’t be exchanged or because there is an obstruction preventing breathing. Breathing is not only necessary for life. It is also necessary to perform the everyday tasks of life: eating, standing, dressing, brushing your teeth, even smiling and, of course, laughing.
There is no cure for COPD. The severity of the symptoms can wax and wane. It is not reversible. But life style changes and medications can make you feel better. Consult with your healthcare provider. Don’t smoke.
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