COPD Lexicon: Basic Terms To Know

Last updated: September 2018

“So, what does that mean? Can you put that in English? Can you put that in terms I can understand?” These are questions I sometimes get after some doctors talk to patients. It’s as though they speak a different language!

They do, kind of. They speak a medical language. They use acronyms like the ones I listed in my article, “Medical Abbreviations." They also use terms such as the ones listed here.

These are some of the terms doctors often use when referring to COPD:

Symptom. It’s how your disease makes you feel. “You are experiencing COPD symptoms.

Flare-up. It’s when you’re experiencing or feeling an increase in COPD symptoms.

Chronic. It’s always there, at least to some extent. It may be controlled, but you will always have it. Examples include chronic bronchitis or chronic asthma. Usually, with asthma, the term “chronic” is just assumed, and you are diagnosed with asthma. But, it is chronic.

Obstructive. It’s when airways become partially blocked. This is usually the result of airway inflammation. It may also be caused by secretions.

Inflammation. It’s when airways become red and inflamed. Some airway inflammation may be chronic. Some airway inflammation may be acute, such as during as during a flare-up.

Edema. Another term for inflammation.

Secretions. Fluid in the lungs. It’s usually used to describe mucus or phlegm.

Mucus. It’s a wet, sticky, gooey substance secreted by special cells lining airways. It’s used to lubricate airways. It’s also used to trap and ball up inhaled particles and pathogens. It’s a part of your immune system meant to keep you healthy.

Pathogens. Germs. Bacteria. Viruses. Respiratory Viruses. Parasites. Living organisms that are microscopic.

Microscopic. Cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Irritants. Microscopic particles or chemicals in the air. They are unseen by the naked eye. These are things that may irritate airways and cause COPD or trigger COPD flare-ups. “Cigarette smoke contains many airway irritants.”

Phlegm. It’s another term for mucus. It’s usually used in reference to excessive amounts of mucus.

Sputum. It’s a term for phlegm once it enters your upper airway. Your doctor might say, “We need a sputum sample.

Pulmonary. This refers to the lungs. “COPD is a pulmonary disease.”

Disease. A disorder or malady. It may be chronic or acute.

Acute. It’s happening right now. “You have acute bronchitis.

Bronchitis. Inflammation of your air passages.

Chronic Bronchitis. This is one of the diseases under the COPD umbrella. Inflammation of your air passages that is always present and may be exacerbated by triggers to cause COPD flare-ups.

Emphysema. This is another disease under the COPD umbrella. It's a loss of lung tissue causing air spaces inside your lungs.

Exacerbate. It means to make worse. “Smoking may exacerbate your COPD.”

Exacerbation. It’s a fancy term used to describe a COPD flare-up. “The patient is having an exacerbation of COPD.

Dyspnea. This is a fancy term for feeling short of breath. It means you feel like you can’t catch your breath.

Orthopnea. This means that you feel like you cannot breathe when lying flat on your back. You need to sit up to breathe.

Expectorate. This is a fancy term that means to spit up secretions.

Triggers. These are things that exacerbate COPD. For examples of triggers, check out Tonya’s post, “5 Common Triggers for Shortness of Breath.”

These are basic terms doctors use. Knowing their definitions should better help you understand doctor language. For more basic terms, stayed tuned for my post “Respiratory 101: The Respiratory Tract.” And of course, if you can think of more terms to know, let us know in the comments below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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