COPD: It’s Like Breathing Through a Straw

Imagine what it would be like if you always had to exhale through a straw. This shortness of breath is what it feels like for many people who have been diagnosed with severe COPD.

COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is also known as chronic bronchitis or emphysema. With COPD, the lungs have been damaged over time, losing their elasticity so that exhalation is made more difficult. Additionally, COPD often involves a buildup of mucus that the injured lungs have trouble clearing. The very fine membranes where oxygen crosses from the air we inspire into lungs’ delicate blood vessels are also damaged, leading to decreased oxygen levels in the blood. Individuals with COPD may cough a great deal, with or without phlegm.

In our country, about 16 million people are affected by COPD. The rates are highest in rural areas, particularly rural states in the South. Smoking is still the leading cause of COPD. Others include exposure to secondhand smoke, uncontrolled chronic asthma, occupational exposure to dust and gasses, and genetically linked diseases.

Medications for COPD usually include inhalers or nebulizers. These devices allow the inhalation of medicines that open breathing tubes, decrease mucus and fight inflammation. Unfortunately, many people with COPD cannot inhale deeply enough to get the most out of their inhalers. For them, nebulizer machines that produce a slow fog of medication to be inhaled might work the best.

While we have excellent medicines to help control COPD, there is no cure. Unfortunately, COPD is like a smoldering brushfire that continues to burn once it starts, slowly damaging the lungs.

As symptoms worsen, some patients may benefit from palliative care. Elizabeth Palliative Care is an integral part of the service offering at The Elizabeth Hospice. This medical approach focuses on providing patients relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of chronic conditions like COPD. Working with your primary care physician and other physicians, the palliative care team provides an added layer of support.

Some people with COPD get to what is called “end-stage COPD.” This means that the lungs are working very poorly, leading to shortness of breath when talking or walking a few steps.

In the end stage of COPD, medications that previously were helpful may no longer be effective. Some patients become tired of repeated hospitalizations that often do more harm than good and decide to choose hospice care.

As the leading provider of hospice care in San Diego County and Southwest Riverside County, The Elizabeth Hospice offers comprehensive services beyond relieving pain, answering questions and providing resources. Each patient is under the care of an interdisciplinary team comprised of a hospice doctor or nurse practitioner, registered nurse case manager, social worker, home health aide, and spiritual counselor, if desired. All hospice-related medicines, necessary durable medical equipment (DME), like walkers, hospital beds and bedside commodes, are delivered to the home.

Family caregivers appreciate the support they receive from The Elizabeth Hospice. They are given the freedom to be loving family members since the hospice team takes care of their loved one’s medical and nursing details of care. Hospice even has respite care, a three-to-five-day stay in a nursing home, supervised by the hospice team, that allows family caregivers the opportunity to take a vacation or other needed breaks.

Many studies have shown that patients on hospice live longer than those who do not choose hospice, probably because tender, loving care makes a difference. To find out how you or your loved one who has been diagnosed with COPD can benefit from palliative care or hospice care, contact The Elizabeth Hospice at 800.797.2050.

By George Delgado, MD, Chief Medical Officer, The Elizabeth Hospice