What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

Learn about the symptoms, diagnosis, risk factors and treatment for this chronic respiratory disease.

Medically reviewed in October 2021

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic respiratory illness that affects millions of people worldwide. People with COPD find that it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe due to damage and inflammation of the airways. COPD is the third leading cause of death in America. Long-term smokers are at the greatest risk for developing the disease. Although COPD has no cure, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can prevent further complications and make breathing easier.

Symptoms of COPD include a chronic productive (mucus-producing) cough, shortness of breath (especially during physical activity), wheezing breath, anxiety and tightness in the chest. People with COPD may also have frequent respiratory infections. Anyone with these symptoms, especially current or former smokers, should be examined by a healthcare provider.

To diagnose COPD, a healthcare provider will first take a detailed medical history to evaluate your lifestyle, family history, risk factors (such as whether or not you smoke) and symptoms. A healthcare provider may order pulmonary function tests to measure lung capacity, oxygen levels and breathing efficiency. X-rays and CT scans, both imaging tests, may be used to determine the severity of damage to the lungs or to rule out other possibilities. Patients should also be screened for alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, a genetic deficiency that can cause lung disease, and is responsible for a small percentage of COPD cases. Keep in mind that it's critical to get diagnosed as early as possible. Generally, the sooner treatment begins, the greater the patient's quality of life and longevity.

Risk factors
Smoking is the biggest risk factor for COPD, and the cause of the majority of COPD cases. People who have long-term exposure to chemical fumes, dusts and vapors also have a higher risk of COPD, as are people who have long-term exposure to pollution and secondhand smoke. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, having an AAT deficiency also increases risk.

Since smoking is the most common cause of COPD, the easiest way to prevent developing the disease is to quit smoking. If you aren't currently a smoker, don't start, and try to avoid secondhand smoke and pollutants whenever possible. Even smokers who are already diagnosed with COPD can benefit from quitting—quitting smoking will stop the disease from getting worse. Smoke—even secondhand smoke—can also cause COPD symptoms to flare up and get worse.

While there's no cure for COPD, there are several treatments available. The decision on how to treat COPD will depend on a number of factors, including the severity of the disease, and is a decision that patients will make with their healthcare providers. Two commonly prescribed medicines for COPD are: bronchodilators, a type of inhaled medicine that helps open the airways; and corticosteroids, a type of steroid that helps reduce inflammation.

Some medicines will be used to keep symptoms under control, and others may be used for rescue when your symptoms get worse. Medicines can be taken with an inhaler or nebulizer, or as pills, and are often taken in combination with one another. Every patient with COPD should work with their healthcare provider to develop an Action Plan, that includes what steps to take to address various symptoms, and also includes a list of medications, dosages and timing. Be sure to take all medicines as prescribed.

Pulmonary rehab programs can also help you manage the disease through breathing techniques, diet and exercise. Many individuals with COPD eventually need and benefit from supplemental oxygen therapy. Though it is already mentioned above, it is worth repeating—quitting smoking is important to COPD treatment, and will slow the progression of the disease. It is also important to work with your doctor to come up with an appropriate exercise plan, as well as a healthy eating plan.

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