What is COPD?

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.

Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis

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.

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.

Signs and Symptoms of COPD

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.

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

  • Shortness of breath*
  • Frequent coughing (with and without sputum or phlegm)**
  • 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.

COPD Co-morbidities

In a COPD Foundation survey, 81 percent of COPD patients described having six or more additional chronic diseases which are called co-morbid conditions (or co-morbidities). Some of the conditions they mentioned included weight loss, arthritic pain, cancer, cardiac problems, female and male osteoporosis, depression, hypertension, sleep apnea, and diabetes. Talk to your doctor about your other symptoms, even if you think they are not related to your COPD.


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. These types of activities will let you share your story and listen to others, like yourself, about how they are living with the 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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