Myths and Misconceptions

There are many myths about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and how it affects the lives of people who live with it. These 7 statements are common beliefs that people have about COPD, which are not always true:

Myth #1 – “COPD is rare.”

COPD does not get as much attention as other serious conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. As a result, many people do not know how common COPD really is. In fact, COPD is not rare at all. COPD is actually the third most common cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer but ahead of stroke:

  • Heart disease – more than 600,000 deaths per year
  • Cancer - more than 500,000 deaths per year
  • COPD - around 135,000 deaths per year
  • Stroke – around 130,000 deaths per year

More that 65 million people around the world have COPD. In the United States, up to 15 million adults have a diagnosis of COPD. This is equal to about 6% of the population. In states such as Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, almost 1 person in 10 has COPD.

Another 10 million or more adults in the US also have COPD, but they do not yet know that they have it. In all, COPD probably affects up to about 25 million Americans.1

Myth #2 – “You can’t live a normal life with COPD.”

Another myth is that if you get a diagnosis of COPD, you won’t be able to live a normal life anymore. This is not true for many people living with COPD – especially people in earlier stages of the disease.

This is one of the reasons why it is important to catch COPD early. People with early-stage COPD, and who follow a good treatment plan, can very often carry on with their normal, day-to-day activities and relationships. There are many kinds of treatments and strategies to control COPD symptoms and help people manage their disease well enough to live a normal life.

Myth #3 – “There are no treatments for COPD.”

COPD does not yet have a cure, and it is not possible to completely stop it from ever getting worse. However, there are many ways to treat its symptoms and to slow down its progress.2

Myth #4 – “You don’t need to quit smoking if you have COPD.”

Some people think that a person does not need to stop smoking after getting COPD. This is completely wrong. It is important for anyone who smokes to stop, but it is critical for COPD patients to quit.

If people with COPD keep smoking, their lung damage will get worse much faster and the disease will progress much more quickly. Their breathing symptoms are more severe, and they have COPD attacks more often than people who stop smoking. Smoking makes COPD symptoms much harder to treat, and makes the disease much harder to manage.3

Myth #5 – “If you stop smoking, COPD is gone.”

Another myth about the disease is that if a person stops smoking, then COPD will go away. This is not true. There is no way to cure COPD or to “un-do” the lung damage that smoking caused.

Even if people stop smoking right away after being diagnosed with COPD, the lung damage is permanent. However, quitting smoking will give them a much better chance to control the disease and keep it from getting worse as quickly.

Myth #6 – “Only smokers get COPD.”

Around 90% of people with COPD got the disease due to lung damage caused by smoking. It is by far the most common cause. But it is not only smokers who get COPD – there are other causes that can put non-smokers at risk as well.

People who breathe in harmful irritants in the air at the workplace or in the home are also at risk of COPD. This causes the disease for about 20% of non-smokers with COPD. A very small number of people are born with a rare condition called AAT deficiency. This also makes them more likely to get COPD even if they don’t smoke or breathe irritants.4

Myth #7 – “When you go on oxygen, you will live with it forever.”

Some people with COPD worry that if they start oxygen therapy, they will definitely have to stay on it forever. However, this is not always true.

Some people need to have short-term oxygen therapy to help treat an acute exacerbation – also called a COPD attack or “flare-up.” During a flare-up, COPD symptoms, such as breathlessness, can suddenly get much worse. Oxygen therapy can help treat the symptoms and bring them under control. When the flare-up is over, the person might not need the oxygen therapy anymore.5

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Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.