What is COPD?

COPD is an abbreviation for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. This disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness.

With COPD, your lungs do not work as well as they once did and you find it more and more difficult to breathe. As the disease progresses, your symptoms tend to get worse and more damage occurs in the lungs. This damage is permanent.

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways. It results in coughing (with phlegm) that you have every day, and that occurs often. The inflammation occurs when the tiny hair-like projections — called cilia — that line your bronchial tubes are damaged. Normal cilia help propel mucus up the bronchial tubes. But when cilia are damaged, it becomes harder to cough up mucus, which in turn causes more coughing, more irritation, and more mucus production. And that means your airways become swollen and clogged. The result is obstruction and increased shortness of breath. You might say you have a "smoker's cough" or a cold that won't go away. But it could be due to damaged airways that have gotten tight, swollen, and filled with mucus. These changes limit airflow in and out of your lungs. And, this makes it hard to breathe.

Emphysema occurs when the tiny air sacs in your lungs — the alveoli — break down and become larger. With the destruction of the alveoli, your lungs are less able to get oxygen out of the air and less effective at getting rid of carbon dioxide. The walls of the damaged air sacs are stretched and less flexible, so that air is trapped inside the lungs. When this happens the airways can become "flabby," and don't push out air as well. And because so much air is trapped in the lungs, your diaphragm (the muscle at the bottom of the lungs that acts like an accordion) can become shortened and unable to assist in breathing. Damaged air sacs trap air inside your lungs. You might feel that it's hard to take a deep breath. Like old balloons, the tiny air sacs get stretched out of shape and break down. Old air gets trapped inside the air sacs so there is no room for new air to get in.

Many people mistake their increased breathlessness and coughing as a normal part of aging. In the early stages of the disease, you may not notice the symptoms. COPD can develop for years without noticeable shortness of breath. You begin to see the symptoms in the more developed stages of the disease. While it can’t be cured, COPD can be managed and treated, so it's important to find out if you have COPD. With the right diagnosis and treatment, you can take steps that could help you manage your COPD and breathe better. That’s why it is important that you talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any of these symptoms. Ask your doctor about taking a spirometry test.

Learn more about getting tested for COPD.

Signs and Symptoms of COPD

Symptoms of COPD can be different for each person, but the common symptoms are:

  • Shortness of breath*
  • Frequent coughing (with and without sputum)**
  • Increased breathlessness
  • Feeling tired, especially when exercising or doing daily activities
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

*Shortness of breath is NOT necessarily a symptom of COPD. It can be seen in other medical conditions including certain heart problems. Being overweight or deconditioned can contribute to shortness of breath.

**Not everyone who has COPD has a chronic cough. Not everyone with a cough has COPD or will develop it in the future. There are many possible causes of a cough, including post nasal drainage from sinusitis, asthma, lung infections and medication side effects.

How common is COPD?

COPD affects an estimated 30 million individuals in the U.S., and over half of them have symptoms and do not know it. Early screening can identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute estimates that 12 million adults have COPD and another 12 million are undiagnosed or developing COPD.

The World Health Organization estimated 210 million individuals worldwide have COPD and total deaths are expected to increase more than 30% in the next ten years.

What causes COPD?

Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants; that includes tobacco smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.), and second-hand smoke.

Fumes, chemicals and dust found in many work environments are contributing factors for many individuals who develop COPD.

Genetics can also play a role in an individual’s development of COPD—even if the person has never smoked or has ever been exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace.

Here is more information on the top three risk factors for developing COPD:

  • Smoking

    COPD most often occurs in people 40 years of age and older who have a history of smoking. These may be individuals who are current or former smokers. While not everybody who smokes gets COPD, most of the individuals who have COPD (about 90% of them) have smoked. However, only one in five smokers will get significant COPD. Researchers are trying to find out why some smokers get COPD and others don’t. (learn more about the COPD PPRN research study.) It is very important to quit smoking if you haven’t! Quitting smoking helps slow the disease. It makes treatment more effective.
  • Environmental Factors

    COPD can also occur in those who have had long term exposure and contact with harmful pollutants in the workplace. Some of these harmful lung irritants include certain chemicals, dust, or fumes. Heavy or long-term contact with secondhand smoke or other lung irritants in the home, such as organic cooking fuel, may also cause COPD. Individuals who have worked for many years around these irritants are at risk for developing mild COPD.
  • Genetic Factors

    Even if an individual has never smoked or been exposed to pollutants for an extended period of time, they can still develop COPD. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD) is the most commonly known genetic risk factor for emphysema2. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin related COPD is caused by a deficiency of the Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein in the bloodstream. Without the Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein, white blood cells begin to harm the lungs and lung deterioration occurs. The World Health Organization and the American Thoracic Society recommends that every individual diagnosed with COPD be tested for Alpha-1. For more information about AATD and how to get tested, visit the Alpha-1 Foundation Website or call 1-877-2 CURE-A1. Because not all individuals with COPD have AATD, and because some individuals with COPD have never smoked, it is believed that there are other genetic predispositions to developing COPD. Read about the COPDGene™ Study to learn about research to find other genetic causes of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
Chronic =

it is long term and does not go away


Obstructive =

it makes it difficult to expel air


Pulmonary =

it affects the lungs


Disease =

it is a problem to be taken seriously

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