COPD Basics

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic (long-term) disease that makes it difficult to breathe. It is a term that covers several lung diseases, most commonly chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Most people will have symptoms of both conditions, so doctors choose to lump the diagnosis under the term COPD.1

What is COPD?

COPD is a disease that impacts how the lungs work. It is very common and is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. People with COPD typically have symptoms of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These 2 conditions affect the body differently, but both make it more difficult to breathe.1,2

Chronic bronchitis is the term for the inflammation of the airways that carry air through your lungs. When these airways are inflamed, they become narrower. This makes it difficult for air to move freely through the airways.2,3

Emphysema is a condition where the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) become damaged. When the alveoli are damaged, it is difficult for oxygen to move from the lungs to the rest of the body. Also, damaged alveoli cannot fully empty when you are breathing out. This can cause you to feel out of breath.2,3

If you show symptoms of COPD and have exposure to risk factors, your doctor will recommend breathing tests. These tests measure how well your lungs are working. COPD is usually diagnosed based off results from these tests.1,2

What causes COPD?

COPD is typically caused by long-term exposure to breathing in toxic irritants. Specifically, it is most commonly caused by smoking tobacco. If you are a smoker and diagnosed with COPD, the most important thing you can do to slow down the disease progression is to quit smoking.2

Other irritants that can cause COPD include:2

  • Air pollution
  • Workplace exposure to dust or fumes
  • Secondhand smoke

A very small percentage of people have a genetic trait that makes them more likely to develop COPD. It is called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency (AAT deficiency). However, AAT deficiency is only responsible for about 1 percent of COPD cases.2

What are the symptoms and complications of COPD?

COPD can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms sometimes do not appear until the disease has progressed. Also, COPD symptoms can sometimes look like other illnesses or just signs of aging. Symptoms of COPD include:1-3

  • Shortness of breath, especially while active
  • Wheezing
  • Increased mucus production
  • Long-lasting cough
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Feeling very tired

Having COPD can also increase your risk of developing other conditions. Common complications of COPD include:2

  • Respiratory infections
  • Heart disease
  • Lung cancer
  • High blood pressure
  • Mental health problems like depression and anxiety

What are treatment options for COPD?

COPD is a chronic condition. This means if you have it, it will never go away. Additionally, any lung damage caused by COPD is irreversible. Because of these factors, COPD treatment is based around slowing additional lung damage and controlling symptoms. COPD treatment may include:2

  • Medicine to improve lung function
  • Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, exercising, or changing your diet
  • Oxygen therapy (supplemental oxygen)
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, a special education program to teach people coping mechanisms for COPD
  • Surgery in some severe cases
  • Mental health counseling

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