An Overview of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

An Overview of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Get to know the basics of this chronic respiratory illness that affects 16 million Americans.

The National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute defines chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as a respiratory disease that makes it difficult for a person to breathe and gets worse over time.

It is estimated that more than 16 million people in the United States have COPD. The disease is the third leading cause of death among Americans, behind heart disease and cancer, and both heart disease and cancer (especially lung cancer) can occur alongside COPD.

Below are some basic but important facts about this disease.

Several diseases
COPD is actually an umbrella term for two chronic respiratory illnesses, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In a person with emphysema, the lung's air sacs, called alveoli, are damaged, reducing the surface area of the lungs and depriving the bloodstream of oxygen. With chronic bronchitis, the walls of the bronchial tubes become inflamed and thickened and produce excess mucus. People with COPD can have a combination of both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Risk factors
Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for COPD, and the risk increases the longer someone has smoked and the more they've smoked. Pipe smokers, cigar smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke are also at risk of COPD. However, plenty of nonsmokers also get COPD. Regularly inhaling fumes or dust from chemicals, grain, cotton, wood, fuel or mining materials can make you more likely to develop COPD.

Shortness of breath or difficulty catching your breath is a symptom of COPD, especially if it progressively worsens or persists for months. People may experience shortness of breath after physical activity or while at rest. Other symptoms include coughing, wheezing, frequent respiratory infections and producing excess amounts of phlegm. People with COPD may also experience a fast heartbeat, fatigue and mental fogginess.

While treatment cannot cure COPD, it can ease symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Treatment for COPD will depend on a number of factors, including the severity of the disease, but may include:

  • Quitting smoking. For anyone who has COPD and smokes, quitting smoking is extremely important to slowing the progression of the disease, and your healthcare provider may prescribe a smoking cessation program to help you quit.
  • Nutrition. COPD can make it difficult to eat, and getting adequate calories and nutrients are an important focus of COPD treatment.
  • Medications. Bronchodilators may help lessen your cough and shortness of breath. Steroids also may help reduce inflammation and help you breathe more easily. In many cases, a combination of medications are used.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a rehabilitation program tailored to the needs of the patient, and can include exercise, breathing training, smoking cessation and nutritional guidance, as well as psychological and social support.
  • Oxygen. Severe COPD may require supplemental oxygen, either for a period of time each day or throughout the entire day.
  • Surgery. In severe cases, and when other treatments are not effective, a patient may undergo a lung volume reduction, in which a surgeon removes small pieces of damaged lung tissue. A lung transplant may also be be considered.

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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