How does chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affect the body?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive disease that drastically impairs lung function. COPD includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. With emphysema, damage to small airways in the lungs destroys their natural elasticity, causing them to collapse in on themselves as you exhale. With chronic bronchitis, an ongoing cough and excess mucus production inflames and narrows the bronchial tubes. In both cases, air is trapped in the lungs even after you exhale, causing shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. As the disease progresses, you may develop unusual breathing habits, a barrel chest as lung size increases due to trapped air, and a blue tint to the skin from low oxygen levels. You are also at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, respiratory infections and depression. In short both of these disease prevent the body’s tissues and organs from getting enough oxygen.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes it difficult for air to flow through the body, which means the body doesn't get the oxygen it needs. It also means that the body can’t easily get rid of the waste product, carbon dioxide.

In COPD, the airways constrict. This happens in response to irritants as the lungs try to keep them out of the airways. When the muscles of the airways remain constricted, the lungs become less elastic, and air becomes trapped within the alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs), so it becomes harder to breathe out. This leads to problems with air flow throughout the body.

Dr. Audrey K. Chun, MD
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

Healthy airways—the trachea (windpipe) and the bronchi, which lead from the trachea to each lung and end in smaller tubes called bronchioles—provide a clear passage for air to travel to tiny balloon-like air sacs (alveoli) at the end of the bronchioles. When you inhale, the alveoli fill up, and when you exhale, they should deflate. But in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the airways are obstructed, impeding the breathing process. Asthma causes similar problems, but for most people with asthma the airway obstruction is reversible with medications. In COPD, two underlying conditions —emphysema and chronic bronchitis—occurring singly or jointly, impede the outflow of air from the lungs.

Bronchitis causes the narrow airways in the lungs to become inflamed and blocked with mucus, while emphysema destroys the tiny air sacs at the end of the airways, making them less elastic. Exhaling becomes difficult and air is trapped inside the lungs, making it difficult to take in sufficient air with each subsequent breath.

Shortness of breath is the result, along with a chronic cough with mucus if you have bronchitis and more frequent chest infections. Less oxygen in the blood can cause a bluish tint (cyanosis) to the lips and fingernails, while a buildup of carbon dioxide, due to the inability to exhale properly, can cause headaches. When COPD is severe and advanced, the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the lungs, and heart failure can result.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.