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.