What is COPD?

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

COPD is a progressive and (currently) incurable disease, but with the right diagnosis and treatment, there are many things you can do to manage your COPD and breathe better. People can live for many years with COPD and enjoy life.


In Emphysema the tiny, delicate air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs are damaged. The walls of the damaged air sacs become stretched out and your lungs actually get bigger, making it harder to move your air in and out. Old air gets trapped inside the alveoli so there is little or no room for new air to go. In emphysema it is harder to get oxygen in and carbon dioxide (the waste product of your breathing) out.

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the breathing tubes (bronchial airways) inside your lungs. Tiny hair-like structures (cilia) line your airways and sweep mucus up, keeping your airways clean. When cilia are damaged, they can’t do this, and it becomes harder for you to cough up mucus. This can make your airways swollen and clogged. These changes limit airflow in and out of your lungs, making it hard to breathe.

Refractory (non-reversible) asthma is a type of asthma that does not respond to usual asthma medications. In an asthma attack, bronchial airways tighten up and swell. Medications can usually reverse this, opening up the airways and returning them to how they were before the asthma attack. In refractory asthma, medications cannot reverse the tightening and swelling of the airways.

Signs and Symptoms of COPD

It’s easy to think of shortness of breath and coughing as a normal part of aging, but these could be signs of COPD. That’s why it is important to talk with your healthcare provider as soon as you notice any of these symptoms. COPDcan progress for years without noticeable shortness of breath. Ask your healthcare provider about ordering a spirometry test.

Symptoms of COPDcan be different for each person, but common symptoms are:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Frequent coughing (with and without mucus)
  • Increased breathlessness
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

Not all COPD is the same

There are different types of COPD. Each type may affect how well different treatments work, how your symptoms affect your everyday life, and how they progress. If you have another health condition in addition to COPD (co-morbidity), such as high blood pressure, heart disease, heartburn, depression, or diabetes, this can also affect your COPD and how it is managed.

Here are some things that can help determine your particular type of COPD. Taking these things into consideration can be useful in addition to your spirometry numbers and other factors.

  • Do you have a cough? If so, do you cough up mucus on most days for at least three months in a period of at least two years?
    • If yes, you may have a chronic bronchitis type of COPD that will respond to different medicines.
  • Are your lungs stretched out and larger than normal? If so, this may be more of an emphysema type of COPD. Sometimes it is possible to decrease the size of the big, stretched out places in your lungs.

Learn more about the common causes and risk factors of developing COPD including smoking, environmental factors and genetic factors.

What Causes COPD?


Resources and Support

The COPD Foundation offers resources such as COPD360social, an online community where you can connect with patients, caregivers and healthcare providers and ask questions, share your experiences and receive and provide support. You can also call the COPD Information Line, a toll-free hotline for anyone seeking information or support on COPD. You can call toll-free at 1-866-316-COPD (2673) to speak to an individual with COPD or caregiver.


Chronic =

a disease that doesn’t go away, even when you’re feeling well and don’t have symptoms


Obstructive =

you have trouble getting air out of your lungs, making it difficult also, to get air into your lungs


Pulmonary =

a disease that is in the lungs


Disease =

a medical condition with symptoms that affect structure or function

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