Understanding COPD

Senior woman coughing

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease often referred to as COPD affects over 24 million Americans.1 COPD refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems.2 It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term cough with a great deal of mucus. It makes it hard to breathe. Emphysema is damage to the air sacs in the lungs. This condition keeps the lungs from doing their job of bringing oxygen to the body and getting rid of waste gases.

Smoking2 is one of the most common causes of COPD. Other causes are dust, pollution, and chemicals.

Symptoms of COPD grow slowly over years. You may have frequent or long-lasting coughs that make mucus. You may suffer from shortness of breath that gets worse with mild activity. You may also notice wheezing or chest tightness when you breathe. If you have these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor.

How is COPD diagnosed?

Your doctor will first most likely ask about your symptoms, your medical and family history, and if you have been around a lot of smoke, dust, and chemicals. He or she will then usually do an exam and listen to your chest for wheezing and other sounds.

You may also have a simple and painless test called spirometry. When you breathe into a tube, it measures how much air you can breathe out and how fast the air moves. Other tests you could have are chest x-rays, a CT scan, and a measure of the level of gases, such as oxygen, in your blood.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for COPD but it may be manageable. There are available options to treat symptoms, help prevent it from getting worse, and even maintain your quality of life so you can keep doing more of the activities you enjoy.

First, quit smoking.3 Tobacco smoke is a key factor in the development and progression of COPD. One of the most important thing you can do to manage COPD is to stop smoking. It doesn't matter how long you've smoked or how old you are. It is never too late to stop.

Another option is pulmonary rehabilitation.4 These programs are usually supervised and structured by health professionals to combine different treatments for COPD.

There are many different kinds of pulmonary rehab programs--some are done in the hospital and/or rehabilitation facility, while others take place at home. The therapies may include:

  • Help with smoking cessation
  • Exercise
  • Breath training
  • Learning to eat well

A number of medicines can also help treat COPD3. If you do have COPD, a pulmonologist may prescribe a bronchodilator to help make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in your airways. Inhaled steroids may also be prescribed to help reduce inflammation.

As COPD progresses, there may be a drop in oxygen levels that may require the need for oxygen therapy to help support breathing.

Surgery may be used for severe cases of COPD that have not responded to other treatments.

Learn more

Similar to other illnesses, it is important to take good care of yourself if you are diagnosed with COPD and learn about how to prevent your condition from getting worse. If you are a friend, neighbor or loved one looking to help support someone who may be at risk for COPD, please visit COPDfoundation.org(link opens in new window)  to learn more about the disease along with finding available resources, health professionals and caregivers who can help provide support.

This information is for educational purposes only and does not replace treatment or advice from a healthcare professional. If you have questions, please talk with your doctor.

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