What is COPD?

Leading Causes, Symptoms and Prevention of COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a term used to describe chronic lung diseases including emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. This disease is characterized by breathlessness. Some people with COPD also experience tiredness and chronic cough with or without mucus.

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

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.


Damage to the air sacs (alveoli - al-vee-oh-lee) causes emphysema (m-pha-zee ma). The walls inside the alveoli disappear, making the many small sacs become larger sacs. These larger sacs do not transfer oxygen from the air to the blood as well. 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. This creates a feeling of shortness of breath.

Chronic Bronchitis

Damage to the bronchial (brawn-key-el) tubes causes chronic bronchitis. Bronchitis (brawn-ki-tus) 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 is called chronic bronchitis.

There are hair-like fibers lining the bronchial tubes of the lungs. These tiny hairs are called cilia (seal lee ah). The cilia help move mucus up the bronchial tubes so it can be coughed out. In chronic bronchitis, the tubes lose their cilia.

This makes it hard to cough up mucus out of the lungs, which causes more coughing. . Smoking, even just a little, keeps the cilia from working normally. Mucus can build up in the lungs. This can cause more damage.

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. COPD can progress for years without noticeable shortness of breath. That’s why it is important to talk with your health care provider as soon as you notice these symptoms. Ask your health care 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)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Unusual tiredness

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 (comorbidity), 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.

Have you been told that your lungs are stretched out and bigger than normal? If so, are they stretched out throughout your whole lung or just in certain places? If so, this is emphysema which is diagnosed by a radiology test (a chest X-ray or a computed tomography [CT] scan). Sometimes it is possible to decrease the size of the big, stretched out places in your lungs.

Patient Stories

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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 health care providers and ask questions, share your experiences and receive and provide support.