COPD’s Effect on the Lungs—in Pictures
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
Cigarette smoking is the number-one cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). COPD refers to two main conditions: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The NHLBI reports that together, these diseases are the third leading cause of death in the United States and a major cause of disability.
Despite these frightening statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that around 46.6 million adults in the United States are smokers. Click through the slideshow to see why you shouldn’t be one of them.
A Look at Your Lungs
COPD is a progressive condition that makes it harder and harder for you to breathe. To understand why this happens, let’s take a look at how your lungs work, and how COPD affects your airflow. In normal breathing, you inhale air down your windpipe that goes into your bronchial tubes or airways in your lungs. Everyone’s lungs contain smaller tubes called bronchioles, which branch out by the thousands and end in air sacs called alveoli.
The Breathing Process
Within the walls of each tiny round air sac are capillaries, or small blood vessels. When you breathe in, air is supposed to be able to enter these air sacs, bringing oxygen through the walls of the alveoli and into your bloodstream in your capillaries. Simultaneously, a waste gas called carbon dioxide needs to move into the air sacs from the capillaries. COPD affects the ability of air to flow in and out of your airways—a process called gas exchange.
Your Lungs with COPD
One of the primary ways that COPD may affect your breathing is by causing your airways and air sacs to lose their elastic quality. Normally, your airways and air sacs are stretchy, and are able to fill up with air like balloons when you inhale. This elastic quality also allows your air sacs to deflate as the air leaves them during exhalation. When you have COPD, your air sacs can’t bounce back to their original shape, making it difficult to get air into and out of your lungs.
COPD in Action
COPD can cause other problems in addition to the loss of elasticity that your lungs need for proper breathing. For example, your airways can become swollen and inflamed, which can hamper your breathing. COPD can also lead to greater production of phlegm or mucus in your airways, which can clog them.
What Happens in Emphysema
The National Emphysema Foundation (NEF) reports that of the 11.2 million adults in the United States who have COPD, over 3 million of them have emphysema. Emphysema causes your lungs to break down and become destroyed over time. When you have emphysema, it can cause the walls between many air sacs to become damaged and lose their shape. The damaged or destroyed air sacs are sometimes described as having a “floppy” shape. This results in the normally small and abundant sacs to be replaced with fewer, larger air sacs. This causes impairment in the gas exchange in your lungs, which decreases the quality of your breathing.
What Happens in Chronic Bronchitis
The American Lung Association (ALA) estimates that nearly 10 million Americans have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, which is the most common form of COPD. Chronic bronchitis results in a lingering cough and constant production of mucus. This happens because smoking causes inflammation or infection of your airway lining. When this happens, the lining becomes thicker, meaning less air can flow in and out of your lungs. This can cause you to cough, produce heavy amounts of mucus, and even develop scarred lungs.
According to the Mayo Clinic, smokers who have chronic bronchitis also have a higher risk of developing lung cancer than those who don’t have the condition. This is because most lung cancer begins in the cells that line your bronchial tubes. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that lung cancer causes more deaths annually in both men and women than breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer combined.
See It to Believe It
Now that you’ve seen how COPD can affect your lungs and your breathing, you can take measures to ensure that your lungs stay healthy. You can’t reverse the damage that COPD does to your, but you can take steps to prevent developing the disease. Almost all cases of COPD are directly related to smoking, so the best way to avoid COPD is to not smoke—or stop smoking now if you’ve already started. Even if you’re a long-time smoker, it’s not too late to prevent further damage to your lungs.