The late stages of COPD become evident with the onset of symptoms such as difficulty breathing, fast heart rate, mental confusion and low blood oxygen content. While COPD is terminal, little if any palliative care is afforded them.
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. COPD is a progressive disease that damages the lungs and impairs breathing. The physical damage caused by COPD is irreversible, affecting either the airway or the air sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli. Diagnoses consist of either of two possible conditions: emphysema and chronic obstructive bronchitis.
Oxygen Desaturation and Confusion
Low levels of oxygen in the blood and its effects on the brain result in the confusion and disorientation associated with COPD. A deep connection between oxygen desaturation and cognitive impairment exists, according to a joint study by scientists from the University of Washington, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The study showed that oxygen desaturation--as a result of the impairment of COPD--specifically impairs choline in the frontal lobe of the brain. Because choline is an essential nutrient and key to the function and development of the central nervous system, this desaturation can lead to brain damage.
Diagnosis of COPD usually occurs as the disease advances and the body’s deterioration is evident. In the United States, 12 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD, and an estimated 12 million more individuals are undiagnosed. Early symptom manifestation includes “smoker’s cough” (a cough producing large amounts of mucus,) wheezing and tightness in the chest. Since diagnosis usually occurs during the later stages of the disease, however, most of those diagnosed are seniors. These individuals usually find they are having difficulty breathing during simple tasks such as walking or routine chores, to the extent that they are no longer able to care for themselves.
Diseases such as a cold, flu, or lung infection may quickly deteriorate the COPD patient’s condition. As respiratory deterioration progresses, the COPD patient will be referred by his personal care physician to a pulmonologist for specialized care. The terminal phase of COPD often goes undiagnosed by general practitioners and, as a result, incomplete hospice treatment is offered during this stage.
As the damage to the lungs worsens, so do the symptoms. Stopping smoking and avoiding dust and chemical inhalation increase the normally slow progression of the disease. Intermediary treatments such as inhalants, flu shots and pneumonia vaccines will delay the advancement of COPD symptoms. Severe COPD often requires the patient to rely on oxygen therapy to perform activities, sleep and for life extension. Surgery as a treatment option is only beneficial in rare cases. Lung transplants, bullectomies and lung volume-reduction surgery are usually performed on COPD patients whose symptoms are akin to emphysema.