The Basics

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) causes shortness of breath and coughing, usually in people with a history of cigarette smoking. The bronchial tubes that go down into the lungs, and the lungs themselves, become damaged and may have difficulty supplying oxygen to the body. People may be more familiar with the terms “emphysema” or “chronic bronchitis” to describe this condition.

Normally, oxygen enters the body through the lungs and carbon dioxide leaves through the lungs. Because of damage to the lungs through cigarette smoke or other fumes, oxygen may have a hard time getting from the lungs into the blood and carbon dioxide may have a hard time getting out of the blood and into the lungs. People with this kind of lung damage may wheeze or cough.

Measuring Air Flow

The severity of the narrowing of the bronchial tubes can be measured through a pulmonary function test or spirometry. For this test, a person is asked to breathe as hard as possible into a tube while a machine calculates how fast the flow of air is. If the flow of air is slower than average, then the person is considered to have an airway obstruction.

Sometimes an inhaler medication called a bronchodilator, which opens up the airways, is given and the test is repeated to see if the flow improves. Oxygen levels may also be measured using a pulse oximeter, which is a small clamp placed on a finger. A doctor may order a chest X-ray or CT scan of the lungs to see if there is structural damage.

Steps to Take

Although there is no cure for COPD, US Family Health Plan has begun an initiative to make certain that our members with COPD are taking the appropriate steps, including taking certain medications, to control the condition. Your doctor may ask you to:

  • Quit smoking, if you haven’t already. To help, TRICARE now allows nicotine-replacement products to be dispensed through the pharmacy benefit with a prescription.
  • Take medications to help open the airways. These are usually prescribed as inhalers. The most commonly prescribed is albuterol. Sometimes more than one type of inhaler is needed to control symptoms. Steroids (not the body-building type), may be prescribed as an inhaler or taken orally. These medications help reduce inflammation in the airways, which cuts down on cough and sputum production.
  • Perform oxygen therapy if your oxygen level is low.
  • Take a calorie supplement if you find it hard to catch your breath while eating.

Special Help

US Family Health Plan members who need help managing their COPD can have one-to-one care through a special program we offer in partnership with Tufts Health Plan. Through this program, nurses offer one-to-one telephone support. Let your doctor know if you think the program would help you.