COPD Myths and Misconceptions

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2021

There are many myths about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and how it affects the lives of people who live with it. Knowing what is factual and what is not can help you understand the condition, how to talk to friends and family about it, and speak to your doctor about what treatments are right for you.

Myth: 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 the fourth most common cause of death in the United States. It is ranked behind heart disease, cancer, and accidents but ahead of stroke.1

In the United States, more than 16 million adults have a diagnosis of COPD. This is equal to about 6.6 percent of adults. In some Southern and Midwestern states, more than 1 in every 10 adults has COPD.1,2

Myth: You cannot live a normal life with COPD

Another myth is that you will not be able to live a normal life after a COPD diagnosis. This is not true for many people living with COPD, especially people in earlier stages of the disease.3

This is one of the reasons why it is important to catch COPD early. People with early-stage COPD who follow a good treatment plan can often carry on with their normal activities and lifestyles. There are many kinds of treatments and strategies available to control COPD symptoms. Many people can manage their disease well enough to live a normal life.3

Myth: There are no treatments for COPD

COPD does not yet have a cure. It is also not possible to completely stop it from ever getting worse. However, there are many treatments available. These treatments can manage symptoms and slow down disease progression. Some of these treatments include:3

  • Drugs for managing symptoms and complications
  • Oxygen therapy, or supplemental oxygen
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, a type of rehab program for learning to handle COPD
  • Lifestyle changes, like diet changes and exercise programs
  • Getting flu and pneumonia vaccines
  • Surgical options

Myth: You do not need to quit smoking if you have COPD

Some people might think that a person does not need to stop smoking after getting COPD. This is not true. It is important for anyone who smokes to stop, but it is very important for people with COPD to quit.3

When people with COPD continue to smoke, the disease is much harder to manage. Their lung damage will get worse much faster, and the disease will progress more quickly. Their breathing symptoms will be more severe, and they are more likely to face other complications. They will also have more flare-ups, or exacerbations.3

Myth: If you stop smoking, COPD is gone

Another myth about COPD is that if someone stops smoking, then their COPD will go away. This is not true. Unfortunately, lung damage from smoking cannot be reversed. COPD does not have a cure, and even quitting smoking will not make it go away.3

However, quitting smoking is one of the most important things you can do if you have COPD. It gives you a much better chance of controlling the disease and keeps it from getting worse as quickly.3

Myth: Only smokers get COPD

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. About 75 percent of COPD cases in the United States are in current or past smokers. But it is not only smokers who get COPD. There are other causes that can put non-smokers at risk as well.2

COPD can also be caused by exposure to other toxic irritants like dusts, fumes, or pollution. This exposure can happen at home or work. A very small portion of people develop COPD because of a genetic condition called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This condition makes people more vulnerable to lung damage from smoking or other irritants.3

Myth: When you go on oxygen, you will live with it forever

Some people with COPD worry that if they start oxygen therapy, they will have to stay on it all the time and forever. This is not always true.

Some people with COPD, usually in later stages, use oxygen all the time. But others use it just at certain times. This could be when sleeping, or during activities like exercising or running errands.3

Other people with COPD will only need short-term oxygen therapy to help treat flare-ups. During flare-ups, symptoms can become worse and make it much harder to breathe. 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.3

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