COPD Basics


What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD for short) is a term that describes a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to breathe well. The two most common COPD lung diseases are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Those two conditions used to be diagnosed separately, but they are now grouped together under the name “COPD.” This is because most COPD patients have symptoms of both emphysema, as well as chronic bronchitis.1,2

How does COPD affect breathing?

COPD is a “pulmonary” disease. It causes the loss of normal function in the lungs, which are the most important parts of the pulmonary system. This system serves the crucial role of delivering oxygen to the body through the process of respiration: breathing air in and out of the lungs.

COPD is an “obstructive” lung disease because changes in the airways block the normal flow of air in and out of the lungs. There are different ways that airflow can become obstructed in COPD, but they have the same general effect: the body does not get enough oxygen because not enough air is getting into the lungs. COPD results in a set of symptoms that are related to the airflow obstruction. These symptoms include:

COPD is a “chronic” disease because it is one that will never go away completely. This means that even when the symptoms of the illness are managed well, a person with a chronic illness like COPD does not ever return to fully normal health. COPD is also a progressive disease, which means that it gets slowly worse over time.

What causes COPD?

In most cases, the damage to the lungs in COPD comes from breathing in airborne irritants and toxins over a prolonged period of time. This damage, including the airflow blockage, usually happens after many years of exposure.

This can be caused by living in an environment with indoor and/or outdoor air pollution, or by exposure to dusts or chemicals at work. However, the number-one cause of COPD lung damage is tobacco smoking: the majority of people with COPD in the United States are current or former smokers. People who have had prolonged exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke also have an increased risk of developing COPD.3

If you suspect that you have any symptoms of COPD, benefit from early detection by consulting with your healthcare provider. Many cases of COPD go undiagnosed, or are diagnosed too late. Classic COPD symptoms may be mistaken for a typical “smoker’s” cough and left untreated, so that damage continues to occur.3

What is it like to live with COPD?

COPD is a relatively common condition, with millions of people living with it around the world.2 It can be very disabling, especially if it has progressed to a more advanced stage. This is because the inability to breathe well can make it hard for people with COPD to perform their usual daily physical activities, such as walking and even talking.4

The damage caused by this disease is not yet curable and there is no known way to undo the damage to the lungs. Keep in mind, though, that there are positive steps that people with COPD can take to manage the condition. If COPD is detected early enough, then steps can be taken to limit any further exposure to damaging irritants.5

For COPD patients who are smokers, the most crucial task is to stop smoking immediately.

There are also multiple ways that people living with COPD can keep their symptoms under control, including:

By managing symptoms effectively and avoiding exposure to irritants that cause further lung damage, a person with COPD can significantly improve his or her quality of life going forward.

view references
  1. American Thoracic Society / European Respiratory Society Task Force. Standards for the Diagnosis and Management of Patients with COPD: Guide for Patients [Internet]. New York: American Thoracic Society;2004 [updated 2005 September 8].]
  2. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “What is COPD?” Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Available at:­topics/topics/copd/ [Accessed 30 November 2014.]]
  3. World Health Organization. “What is COPD?” Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Available at: [Accessed 21 November 2014.]]
  4. American Lung Association. “Understanding COPD.” Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Available at: [Accessed 30 November 2014.]]
  5. Mayo Clinic. “COPD Causes.” COPD. Available at [Accessed 2 December 2014.]
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