St. Lawrence Health

Pulmonologist Explains Seriousness of COPD

Rishi Kumar, MD, from Canton-Potsdam Hospital explains that COPD affects the respiratory system.

Nov. 14, 2022 5   min read

POTSDAM, NY - Chronic obstructive pulmonary (COPD) disease is a leading cause of illness and death in the United States each year. November is National COPD Awareness Month and serves as the perfect time to better inform people about how they should best work with a provider to manage the disease.

Canton-Potsdam Hospital Pulmonologist Rishi Kumar, MD, noted COPD affects the respiratory system, and causes airflow limitation due to damage to the airways and/or lung tissue. COPD can sometimes also be referred to as emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

Common symptoms for COPD include shortness of breath (dyspnea), chronic cough, mucous production (sputum), and wheezing. These symptoms are similar to asthma; however, the diseases are quite different.

“Asthma is predominantly inflammation of the airways and is often reversible either with treatment or spontaneously,” Dr. Kumar said. “COPD is permanent damage to the lungs caused by exposure to noxious particles. The most common cause in the United States is tobacco smoke (cigarettes).”

To establish the diagnosis in someone, a pulmonary function test (PFT) is required to confirm the airflow limitation. This is a breathing test completed in the hospital or in a provider’s office.

“Patients with confirmed COPD and symptoms will benefit from inhaler treatment. Unfortunately, some patients can suffer a sudden worsening of their respiratory symptoms which can lead to emergency room visits and/or hospitalization. This is known as a COPD exacerbation,” Dr. Kumar explained.

Often triggered by an infection, symptoms of COPD exacerbation include sudden worsening shortness of breath, wheezing, significant increase in sputum production, and change in color of the sputum. Sometimes patients may have low oxygen levels associated with an exacerbation.

“Frequent exacerbations and continued smoking will worsen lung function over time, leading to worsening respiratory symptoms which is often permanent and debilitating. Patients can also end up requiring long term oxygen use as their lung function worsens,” Dr. Kumar said.

“It is important to prevent COPD and exacerbations from worsening. Patients are encouraged to quit smoking and be up-to-date on their vaccines (flu and pneumonia) to try to prevent infection. Physical activity is also very important to maintain physical endurance,” he added.

Pulmonary rehabilitation may be offered to patients to improve their quality of life and respiratory symptoms.

Early lung cancer in COPD patients is often missed due to symptoms like cough and shortness of breath which are already common in those with the disease. Lung cancer screening is an important program approved to find signs of lung cancer in its early stages.

“A yearly CT scan of the chest can identify spots in your lungs (nodules) that can be evaluated for lung cancer. If identified early, it can be treated quickly and cured. Patients who are between the age of 50 and 80, smoke one pack per day for at least 20 years, or have quit smoking within 15 years, qualify for the Lung Cancer Screening Program. Patients should ask their doctor or specialist about getting a CT scan of their lungs every year as part of this program,” Dr. Kumar said.

Learn about St. Lawrence Health’s Pulmonary services.