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What is COPD?

by | Apr 6, 2023 | Lung Health

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an inflammatory lung disease in which less air flows in and out of the airways, causing breathing difficulties. As the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, COPD affects more than 15 million adults. The most common symptoms of COPD are shortness of breath, chronic cough, and wheezing. Although COPD is a progressive disease that worsens over time, it is treatable. Combined with proper management and a healthy lifestyle, most people with COPD can achieve positive symptom control and quality of life.

COPD symptoms often do not appear until significant lung damage has occurred. Signs and symptoms of COPD may include

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • A chronic cough that may produce mucus (sputum) that may be clear, white, yellow, or greenish
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss (in later stages)

Two Main Conditions

Most people living with COPD experience emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The intensity of each condition varies from person to person.


Emphysema is characterized by damage to the walls between the air sacs in the lungs. Normally elastic or stretchy, each air sac inflates as you breathe in and deflates as you breathe out. The air sacs ability to expand and contract becomes reduced, making breathing difficult.

Chronic (long-term) bronchitis

Irritation and inflammation in the lining of the airways cause Chronic (long-term) bronchitis. Thick mucus forms, causing you to develop a chronic cough as you attempt to clear your airways.

What Causes COPD?

In the majority of individuals with COPD, the lung damage that leads to the disease is caused by long-term cigarette smoking. There are other factors associated with the development of COPD.

  • Genetic susceptibility
  • Cigar smoke
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Pipe smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Workspace exposure to dust, smoke, or fumes

Up to 30% of people with COPD never smoked. A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency can also cause the disease.

Living with COPD

A chronic condition with no cure, COPD requires ongoing treatment and management. COPD is a progressive disease, meaning that it gets worse over time. Many complications can occur as a result.

  • Respiratory infections
  • Heart problems
  • Lung cancer
  • High blood pressure in lung arteries
  • Depression


With COPD, doctors can determine a clear cause, a path of prevention, and ways to slow the progression of the disease. Although there is no cure, treatments and lifestyle changes can majorly affect the quality of life. Oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, or medicines can also help treat complications and increase physical activity levels. The most critical step in treating COPD is to quit smoking, as continued exposure to tobacco smoke can worsen the condition. It is also beneficial to receive annual flu and other regular vaccinations. In addition to medical treatments, lifestyle changes can help manage COPD. These may include regular exercise, a healthy diet, and avoiding exposure to environmental pollutants.

When Should You See a Doctor?

People with COPD need to work closely with their healthcare provider to develop a treatment plan that meets their individual needs. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms are not improving with treatment or getting worse. Symptoms of an infection, such as fever or a change in sputum, can also be cause for concern. Seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the following.

  • Unable to catch your breath
  • Severe blueness of your lips or fingernail beds
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fogginess and trouble concentrating

A consultation with the professional staff at the Comprehensive Sleep and Breathing Center can help you combat the effects of COPD. The center is available to help you properly manage your COPD and live a full and active life.