Understanding COPD

Senior woman coughing

In 2016, the American Lung Association reported that more than 11 million people in America have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is now the third leading cause of death in the United States.1 COPD actually refers to a group of diseases that block the free flow of air in the lungs. It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and, in some cases, asthma. Emphysema is damage to the air sacs in the lungs, which keeps the lungs from doing their job of bringing oxygen to the body and getting rid of waste gases. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term cough with a great deal of mucus, which makes it hard to breathe.2

Smoking is one of the most common causes of COPD.2 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’s important to see your doctor right away.

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 tools your doctor may use are chest x-rays, a CT scan, and blood tests to measure the level of certain gases, such as oxygen, in your blood.

How is COPD treated?

There is no cure for COPD, but there are steps you and your doctor can take to treat the symptoms and to help maintain your quality of life, so you can keep doing more of the activities you enjoy.

One of the most important things you can do to manage COPD? If you smoke, stop! It doesn't matter how long you've smoked or how old you are; it is never too late to stop.3

A number of medicines can also help treat COPD3. 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.

Pulmonary rehabilitation programs may also be helpful.4 These programs are usually supervised by healthcare professionals. Rehab activities may take place in a hospital or other healthcare facility, or at home. Pulmonary rehab programs may also include:

  • A specialized exercise regimen
  • Breath training
  • Nutritional support

Learn more

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, decide today to take care of yourself! Learn about how to deal with your symptoms and 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). There you can learn more about the disease and find helpful resources, health professionals and caregivers who can 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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