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Women and COPD: How Is It Different?

March is Women’s History Month and March 8th is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would use these events as a reason to honor the many women who are fighting COPD these days.

At one point in our history, COPD was considered more of a man’s disease. But over the past 50 years or so, the number of women dying from COPD increased by nearly 400%, while in men it only increased by about 27%. In the year 2000, more women began dying of COPD than men did.

Today, over 7 million women in the United States alone are known to have COPD. Millions more probably have it as well, but have not yet been diagnosed. Women are especially vulnerable to COPD under the age of 65.

Experts believe that the rise in COPD in women can be closely tied to the increase in tobacco industry marketing targeted at women. As women’s rights increased in the 1960s and 1970s, so did rates of smoking in women increase. We now have the inalienable right to smoke and to die from COPD. “We’ve come a long way, baby“, a phrase coined by one tobacco manufacturer.

How Women Experience COPD Differently From Men

The experience women have with COPD from the very beginning tends to be different than it is with men. Here are a few examples:

  • Women tend to be under-diagnosed. Even after all this time, many doctors still tend to think of COPD as a man’s disease and overlook the symptoms in women, thus delaying treatment. Many times, women are diagnosed wrongly with asthma at first. Spirometry, a breathing test, is the best way to diagnose COPD, but is rarely used, especially in women.
  • Women also are frequently under-treated. Women cope with COPD better when they have interpersonal connections and social support. However, they often tend to feel they don’t get enough information and time with their doctors to discuss treatment plans. Plus, if a woman has not been correctly diagnosed, treatment specific to COPD may be delayed or never started at all.
  • Quitting smoking is harder for women. Quitting smoking is the best treatment for someone who has COPD, and women actually benefit from quitting more than men. But, it is harder for women to quit and to quit for good. Plus, unfortunately smoking may be more damaging to women’s lungs than it is to men’s lungs.
  • Quality of life for women with COPD is a bigger issue than it is for men. Women who have COPD struggle more with emotional well-being, which can take a toll on their health overall. Quality of life tends to be affected earlier on in the disease for women than it does for men. One of the reasons for this is because shortness of breath is a more common and severe symptom in women. Being short of breath can greatly affect quality of life.
  • The progression and course of COPD can be more severe in women. Women with COPD are also greatly at risk for depression and anxiety, two conditions that tend to be very under-treated. In fact, less than one third of women with depression/anxiety receive sufficient treatment. All of these factors make it harder for women to follow their treatment plans, quit smoking, stay active and get the emotional support they need. And that results in women being more susceptible to flare-ups, relapses and complications. Those factors can hasten the progressions of COPD, sadly.

How Can We Make Things Better for Women With COPD?

There is much to be hopeful about in the future, however, for women who have COPD or who will have COPD. With greater awareness will come action and change. Here are a few of the steps in the action plan outlined by the American Lung Association in regards to women with COPD:

  1. We need to strengthen the public health response and Federal and state funding for COPD. It’s the 3rd leading cause of death today, and has been overlooked for too long.
  2. We need more research into gender-related issues with COPD. Past studies have not focused enough on the differences between men and women or have not included enough women. This needs to change if we are to better understand how to help women with COPD.
  3. We need to better prevent COPD where possible. The best prevention for COPD is to improve air quality and to discourage smoking.
  4. Healthcare needs to diagnose COPD quicker in women and ensure that adequate treatment for COPD, depression and anxiety occur. Policies, practices and systems need to be put into place that will help this to happen.
  5. Women need to advocate for themselves! Women who have COPD and their advocates must begin to speak up about the toll this disease takes on women and families. They need to become a voice for themselves and their fellow sufferers in their communities.

In Summary

We can’t deny the effect that COPD is having on the women of our world. Now is the time to take action to better understand what is happening and put measures into place to lessen the impact of this chronic illness.

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.

  1. Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women (Disparities in Lung Health Series), American Lung Association, Copyright 2013.
  2. Cote CG, Chapman KR. Diagnosis and treatment considerations for women with COPD. 2009.
  3. Laviolette L, Lacasse Y, Doucet M, et al. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in women.
  4. Canadian Respiratory Journal : Journal of the Canadian Thoracic Society. 2007;14(2):93-98.
  5. Han, et al. Gender and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Why It Matters. 2007.
  6. Torres, et al. Gender and COPD in Patients Attending a Pulmonary Clinic. CHEST. 2005.


  • Julie
    3 years ago

    This article was very interesting. As a woman with COPD, on oxygen 2 liters 24/7, for 12 years and now in the final stage. It was very difficult to come to terms with this disease as a middle aged woman at the time. We owned a business and had teenagers, and I was mom, accountant for the business, social secretary, or what ever necessary. When I could longer put together a quick meal, vacuum, work 10 hr days, and so many of the other day to day chores, I blamed myself and lost a bit of my self-esteem. My memory was effected which caused more concern. I have taken Celexa and wellburtrin for sever all years., we call them my crazy pills. These have helped to stop the emotional swings, crying, and anxiety. Still feel like I don’t carry my weight and the family doesn’t understand sometimes why I feel this way. As you mentioned in the article we a lot more support and information on this topic. Question. .. At times I feel people look at us and say well they did this to themselves. I stopped smoking 25 years ago. Like they say if I knew then… right. Thank you for this site I have enjoyed the articles and comments.

  • Kathi MacNaughton author
    3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your story, Julie. You’re certainly not alone in your experience as a woman dealing with COPD. My mother went through a lot of the same things. And I agree with you that people sometimes blame COPD’ers for their disease. It’s certainly not as simple as knowing smoking is bad for you and then just stopping. Tobacco is one of the most, if not the most, addicting substances on the planet. I watched both my mother and father struggle for years with this addiction. My dad never won the battle. My mom only stopped when she was put on oxygen, and she craved cigarettes every day of the last 5 or 6 years of her life. Don’t let them get you down. I can tell by your note that you are a dedicated mother, wife and business partner. You’ve done the best you can. Just keep fighting!

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