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.


Damage to the alveoli (air sacs) causes emphysema. The walls inside the alveoli disappear, making many small sacs become larger, single sacs. These larger sacs do not absorb oxygen as well. So, less oxygen is absorbed into the blood.

Also, when the alveoli are damaged, the lungs become stretched out and lose their springiness. The airways become flabby, and air is trapped in the lungs. It becomes hard to breathe out. This creates a feeling of shortness of breath.

Chronic Bronchitis

Damage to the bronchial tubes causes chronic bronchitis. Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes are irritated and swollen. This causes coughing and shortness of breath. If mucus comes up with the cough and the cough lasts at least three months for two years in a row, the bronchitis has become chronic bronchitis.

There are hair-like fibers lining the bronchial tubes of the lungs. These tiny hairs are called cilia. The cilia help move mucus up the tubes so it can be coughed out. In chronic bronchitis, the tubes have lost their cilia. This makes it hard to cough up mucus, which causes more coughing. More coughing makes the tubes more irritated. This creates more mucus. The tubes then become swollen, making it hard to breathe. Smoking even just a little keeps the cilia from working normally. Mucus can build up in the lungs. This can cause more damage.

Refractory (non-reversible) asthma

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 COPD can 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. We also offer free, downloadable educational materials available through our downloads library.

This page was last updated on January 15, 2020.

Chronic -

This means that the disease lasts a long time and is always present. While the symptoms may take years to develop and the severity may differ at times, there is still much you can do to slow the progress of the disease.

Obstructive -

The ability to move air in and out of your lungs is blocked or obstructed. This is caused by swelling and extra mucus in the tubes of the lungs (airways) which carry air in and out.

Pulmonary -

This means that the disease is located in your lungs.

Disease -

Your lungs have some damage. But even though a cure hasn’t been found yet, your symptoms can be treated.

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