Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Pathophysiology

Meaning of COPD

COPD is a condition of the lungs that narrows to block the airways, resulting in difficulty or shortness in breathing. It is a gradually developing condition that develops insidious symptoms as time passes. The most common types of COPD include emphysema and chronic bronchitis (Schweiger & Zdanowicz, 2010).

According to Higginson (2010), this disease is commonly caused by prolonged smoking. Also, the disease may be caused by inhalation of foreign things that may infuriate the lungs such as, pollen, dust, air pollutants, smoke and other toxicants. Hence, this condition still remains a major cause of medical problems or complications and a major cause of demise in numerous parts of the globe.

Detailed information about pathophysiology of COPD

Pathophysiology of chronic pulmonary related illnesses is very intricate. The obstruction in the air-paths can be caused by numerous factors such as inflammatory reactions, changes in the structure, mucociliary problems among others (Lynes, 2010).

  • Inflammation of the air-paths: A major feature of COPD is a chronic irritation of the air-paths, pulmonary arteries (blood vessels) and tissues of the lungs. This may occur due to exposure of the breathing system to inhalable sensitive substances such as cigarette smoke and other toxicant substances.
  • Structural Changes: The reconstruction of the damaged airways is a direct cause of the irritation reaction connected to the COPD, which causes the blockage.
  • Mucociliary malfunctioning: Tobacco smoke is usually accountable for inflammation, which then enlarges the mucus glands, lining the air-paths in the respiratory system. This leads to development of ‘goblet cell’ metaplasia, which then causes the replacement of healthy cells with cells that secrete mucus.

In a nutshell, the obstruction in the airways may be as a result of elasticity loss, chronic inflammation or serious damage of the air roads’ walls. Also, when excess mucus is secreted by these paths, the problem may start to appear. In addition, the problem may also be caused by the decreased surface area for air exchange.

Based on medical research (Higginson, 2010), the key factor that contributes to the development of this problem, is the reaction caused by chronic burning of the airways’ walls. Lynes (2010) points out that burning sensations and reactions caused by asthma and those experienced by COPD patients are not the same.

In patients suffering from COPD, burning effect initiates the secretion of lymphocytes, neutrophils and macrophages. These cells together with protease enzymes and responsive oxygen are accountable for the damage caused in the air-paths (alveoli).

Higginson (2010) states that smoke, especially from cigarettes, normally raises the amount of neutrophils to an abnormal level. Consequently, the air paths thicken and the body produces excessively smooth linkage tissues and muscles. This ultimately causes fibrosis in the air paths. Medical studies (Higginson, 2010) indicate that all these burning sensations are attributable to long-term smoking and in some other instances, frequent exposure to substances that may irritate the lungs.

The process of pathophysiology is composed of several phases. In the first phase, the airways get narrowed or blocked. This leads to another phase where lungs and it affiliate organs get damaged. Third, the lungs become hyperactive leading to the breakdown of cilia in the air-paths. Finally, before the COPD condition develops fully, the continuous damage of the walls of the alveoli occurs.

As the disease continues to develop with time, the sick patient starts to reveal productive coughs, wheezing and shortness in breath. Due to the increase in chest pressure, the patient encounters more hardship in the exhalation process than inhalation (Cornforth, 2012).

In the scientific medicine, the cure for COPD is nonexistent. This simply implies that, the narrowed and blocked airways cannot be cured or reversed back to its normal functioning. The only effective way to deal with COPD is to quit smoking. This approach is preventive and not curative, but it is the most commendable way of handling COPD.

Diagnosis of COPD

In theory, pulmonologists are supposed to confirm COPD examination or diagnosis and administer the process of treatment. The responsible physician should take account of the patient and do all necessary physical examinations.

If the patient’s history has characteristics that indicate breath shortness, secretion of phlegm, prolonged cough or intermittent together with a history of cigarette smoking, then COPD becomes one of the suspected problems. Some of the diagnostic measures taken include chest x-rays, breath tests, arterial blood-gas, electrocardiogram and exercise tests (Cornforth, 2012).

Treatment of COPD

As said earlier in the paper, COPD cannot be completely cured because it has no cure. However, there are ways through which patients can effectively cope with the condition. For instance, patients are required to embrace ways that may improve personal health and lifestyle. Patients should ensure that the doctor administering the diagnosis is fully qualified.

Patients should also learn and embrace reliable ways of getting helpful information about COPD and how to administer the disease. Lastly, patients should avoid premature withdrawal from the prescribed medication. Therefore, though people normally overlook COPD, it is an insidious disease that if not carefully diagnosed may cause death.


Cornforth, A. (2012). Diagnosis and management of COPD. Nurse Prescribing, 10(2), 65-71.

Higginson, R. (2010). COPD: pathophysiology and treatment. Nurse Prescribing, 8(3), 102-110.

Lynes, D. (2010). Diagnosis and management of patients with COPD in primary care. Nursing Standard, 25(8), 49-57.

Schweiger, T. & Zdanowicz, M. (2010). Systemic corticosteroids in the treatment of acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 67(13), 1061-1069.