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Heart & Lung Health

What is COPD and How Does It Affect Your Health?

It is completely normal to get a little winded while exerting yourself, but if you experience shortness of breath on a regular basis, it could very well be a problem. Difficulty breathing paired with cough, sputum, and wheezing are the hallmarks of a condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. Keep reading to learn more about COPD and its effects on your health.

What is COPD, Anyway?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes airflow from the lungs to become obstructed – difficulty breathing is the primary symptom. Though COPD is a disease in and of itself, it is often linked to two other common conditions – emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is characterized by inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes which are the structures that carry air to and from the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs. Emphysema is a condition in which the alveoli in the bronchioles, the smallest air passages in the lungs, are destroyed or damaged by cigarette smoke and other toxic or irritating gases.

What Are the Symptoms and Causes?

While difficulty breathing is the most common symptom of COPD, you may also experience cough, mucus or sputum production, and wheezing. Unfortunately, these symptoms often do not present until the disease has progressed and significant lung damage has occurred. In fact, the diagnostic criteria for chronic bronchitis include a daily cough and sputum production for at least three months out of the year for two consecutive years. Emphysema is also a disease that develops over time and can cause serious damage to the respiratory system.

The shortness of breath that commonly indicates COPD can happen anytime, but most frequently occurs during physical activity. Other symptoms of COPD may include the following:

  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Chronic cough
  • Sputum-producing cough
  • Cyanosis (blue lips or fingernail beds)
  • Low energy level
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Swollen ankles or feet
  • Unintentional weight loss

Another common symptom of COPD is having to clear your throat first thing in the morning, typically due to excess mucus in the lungs. Many people with COPD experience one or more symptoms on a daily basis, though there may also be periods during which symptoms worsen for a period of several days. Additionally, the severity of these symptoms is likely to worsen over time – especially if you keep smoking cigarettes.

Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause of COPD, particularly in the developed world. In developing countries, however, it is more commonly caused by inhalation of cooking fumes in poorly ventilated areas. While many smokers develop some degree of reduced lung function, only about 20% to 30% actually develop clinically apparent COPD. Other factors that contribute to COPD include long-term exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke, fumes, dust, and work-related chemicals. There is also a rare form of the disease caused by an alpha-1 deficiency. Alpha-1-deficiency-related emphysema is caused by a genetic condition that impairs the body’s ability to produce normal amounts of the alpha-1 protein which protects the lungs from damage.

How Does COPD Affect Your Lungs?

The lung-damaging effects of COPD are obvious in that the most common symptom is difficulty breathing, but how exactly does this disease affect your lungs and the rest of the respiratory system? In order to understand the effects of COPD, you need a basic understanding of how your respiratory system works. When you breathe air through your mouth or nose, it travels down your trachea or windpipe into the lungs through two large tubes called bronchi.

Once the tubes enter the lungs, they separate into many smaller tubes like the branches of a tree – these smaller tubes are called bronchioles, and there is a cluster of air sacs or alveoli at the end of each. Inside the alveoli are collections of tiny blood vessels called capillaries which absorb the oxygen from the air you breathe, allowing it to enter the bloodstream. From there, the oxygenated blood is pumped throughout your body, and you exhale the waste product carbon dioxide.

So, what happens when you develop COPD? Healthy lung function is dependent on the elasticity of the bronchial tubes and air sacs which enables them to physically force air out of your body. COPD causes those structures to lose their elasticity, allowing them to over-expand which prevents all of the air from leaving – it actually traps some of the air in your lungs each time you exhale. As you can imagine, it is difficult to catch your breath when trapped air prevents your lungs from filling properly.

How Else Does COPD Affect Your Health?

By the time you develop symptoms of COPD, it is likely that a significant amount of damage has already been done to your lungs, but what about the rest of the body? How else does COPD affect your health?

Long-term COPD can lead to a number of complications including frequent respiratory infections, heart problems, high blood pressure, and even depression. For people with COPD, respiratory infections are a double-edged sword. Having COPD makes it more likely that you will catch a cold, the flu, or pneumonia and any respiratory infection will make it more difficult to breathe, thus exacerbating the damage to your lungs and making your COPD worse. COPD can also cause high blood pressure in the arteries supplying blood to the lungs – this is known as pulmonary hypertension – and, for unknown reasons, COPD may increase your risk for heart disease or heart attack. Having chronic COPD may also impact your daily life to the degree that you develop depression.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is no laughing matter, and it is a very real risk if you are or have ever been a smoker. While COPD is very serious, it is also very treatable – quitting smoking and making other healthy changes to your lifestyle can help you manage the disease and improve your quality of life, but you should start sooner than later.

The Top 5 Surprising Risk Factors for Heart Attack

According to the CDC, a heart attack occurs in the United States every 40 seconds. Also known as myocardial infarction, a heart attack occurs when part of the heart fails to receive adequate blood flow. Each year, nearly 800,000 Americans suffer a heart attack and, for more than 200,000 of them, it is a second attack.

Heart attacks can range from mild to severe, but the scary thing about them is that they can come on seemingly without warning. What’s more, about one in five heart attacks is silent – this means that it causes damage to the heart muscle but shows no sign of it. You may already know about certain risk factors for heart attack such as obesity and genetics, but there are some surprising risk factors you should learn about as well.

What Exactly Happens During a Heart Attack?

Your heart is the center of your cardiovascular system – the system that is responsible for pumping oxygenated blood throughout your body. When you breathe air into your lungs, the oxygen enters your bloodstream and is then transported throughout the body. Not only does your heart pump oxygenated blood to other vital organs, but it requires a certain amount of oxygen itself in order to function properly. When that oxygen supply is reduced or cut off, it can trigger a heart attack.

In simple terms, a heart attack happens when oxygen-giving blood flow to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely. There are a number of different contributing factors which can cause this to happen, but atherosclerosis is the most common. If you have high cholesterol and follow an unhealthy diet, you are more likely to develop an accumulation of fat in your arteries. That fat combines with cholesterol and other substances to form plaques that thicken the artery walls, causing them to narrow which then restricts blood flow – this is called atherosclerosis.

When an artery becomes so narrowed that it restricts blood flow which triggers a heart attack. The longer the heart is deprived of oxygen, the more damage it is likely to sustain. Treatment for heart attack involves opening the blocked artery to restore blood flow. Once that goal is accomplished, additional treatments or therapies may be administered to mitigate symptoms and to repair the damage.

What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Attack?

Eating an unhealthy diet and failing to get any regular exercise are two of the biggest risk factors for heart attack along with obesity and family history. Your risk for heart attack may also be higher if you have certain cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. What you may not know, however, is that there are some other indications which may not seem related to your heart health but could very well contribute to an increased risk for a heart attack – here are the top 5:

  1. Your skin is dry and scaly.
  2. You’ve been exposed to environmental toxins.
  3. You take OTC pain relievers for cold or flu.
  4. You have chronic shoulder pain or stiffness.
  5. Your ears have taken a beating.

If you have dry patches of red, scaly skin on your body – particularly on the elbows – it could be more than just dry skin, it could be psoriasis. Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin condition triggered by autoimmune activity that speeds up the life cycle of cells, causing them to accumulate on the surface of the skin in formations known as plaques. Because the driving force behind psoriasis is inflammation, it has been linked to heart disease. In fact, studies show that having psoriasis can increase your risk for heart disease by two to three times. This could also mean an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The air you breathe, the food you eat, and the products you use could be full of toxins without you realizing it. Though hidden toxins are dangerous, it is the obvious things like smog which are the most damaging. Environmental toxins like smog can wreak havoc on your health, but you may be surprised to learn that they could also increase your risk of heart attack. Studies show that cumulative exposure to smog can worsen cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease and, in conjunction, heart attack.

When you are hit with the flu or develop a cold, you probably reach for over-the-counter medications to relieve the aches and pains. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen are generally regarded as safe, and they can help relieve mild symptoms. According to a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, however, these same drugs could increase your risk for a heart attack if you take them while suffering from a respiratory infection. Researchers have yet to explain the link, but it could be related to an increased risk of bleeding and blood clots.

Chest pain that radiates to the neck and arm can be an early indication of heart attack, but what about shoulder pain? Chronic shoulder pain may not directly cause heart problems, but recent studies have identified a correlation between an increased risk for heart disease and shoulder trouble. In a study of 36 participants, those with numerous risk factors for heart disease were found to be 5 times more likely to have shoulder joint pain than those with no cardiac risk factors.

When you think of heart disease and heart attack risk factors, your ears probably never enter your mind. According to new research, however, prolonged or frequent exposure to loud noises was correlated with higher rates of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), heart failure, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. So, while noise may not directly cause heart disease, it may have a negative impact on various aspects of cardiac health which could contribute to a higher risk of a heart attack.

Heart-related symptoms are never something you should ignore, even if they seem mild. You should also keep in mind that the symptoms of heart attack look different in men than in women, so take the time to educate yourself for your own protection.


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