Can COPD Be Reversed?

Improvement vs. Reversibility in Obstructive Lung Disease

A man takes a lung function test.
A man takes a lung function test. Jan-Otto/Getty Images

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is defined as an inflammatory disorder of the lungs characterized by the permanent or partially reversible restriction of airflow. The definition alone can eyebrows as the term "partially reversible" suggests there are things we can do to reverse the condition.

Within this context, reversibility is possible insofar as breathing function is concerned, although it tends to be slight.

But here's the twist: in some cases, this slight difference can make all difference in determining whether you have chronic bronchitis or are suddenly faced with emphysema.

Understanding COPD

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., preceded only by heart disease and cancer. It is most frequently caused by smoking which is why there are nearly for 600 million people worldwide living with the disease today.

The Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) defines COPD as a disease "characterized by airflow limitation that is not fully reversible." This is not meant to suggest that COPD is like asthma, where breathing function can be returned to normal if the underlying condition is treated.

With COPD, any damage done to the lungs cannot be undone. Unlike, say, the liver where tissue can regenerate itself after injury, the lungs have little capacity for self-repair.

Improvement vs. Reversibility of COPD Symptoms

To most, it is common knowledge that the simple act of quitting cigarettes can improve a person’s ability to breathe even in the later stages of COPD.

This is not so much due to the fact that the lungs have "healed" themselves. It is simply that the removal of the smoke prevents the inflammation that causes the excessive production of mucus. Stopping doesn’t restore lung elasticity; it simply relieves the lungs of further damage.

As such, "reversibility" may be applied if you have less need for a bronchodilator or steroid inhaler.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll no longer need an inhaler or will stop producing mucus. That will depend largely on how much damage has already been done.

Managing COPD and Slowing Disease Progression

The key aim of managing COPD is twofold: to ensure you have the optimal respiratory capacity based on the current state of your lungs, and to slow progression of the disease by removing the causes of inflammation.

You can achieve these goals in a number of ways:

  • Lifestyle changes are and will always be the best way to lessen the symptoms of COPD. That not only includes quitting cigarettes but things like improved nutrition and regular exercise
  • Environmental triggers can exacerbate COPD and lead to a worsening of your symptoms. Identify and avoid common trigger like second-hand smoke, heavy perfumes, hairspray, paint fumes, cleaning products, pet dander, mold, etc. Never tolerate irritants to the detriment of your good health.
  • Treatment adherence is key to long-term management of COPD. This includes the proper use of inhalers, antibiotics, and PDE4 inhibitors. Ultimately, the less stress you put on your lungs, the less damage you will incur.
  • An annual flu shot can reduce the risk of illness and death in people with COPD by around 50 percent.  The pneumonia vaccine is also recommended for people 65 years of age and older to reduce the risk of bacterial pneumonia.

    While COPD is not curable, it is treatable. By taking the necessary steps to care for your lungs, you can reduce your risk of illness and incapacitation over the long term. All it takes is to start today.

    Source:

    Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD). "Evidence in Support of Prevention and Maintenance Therapy." Pocket Guide to COPD Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention: A Guide for Health Care Professionals. 2017:9-18.

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