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What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

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

an older Black woman receives a checkup from a healthcare provider

Updated on October 4, 2023

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic respiratory illness that affects as many as 16 million people in the United States. It’s also one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Long-term smokers are at the greatest risk for developing the disease, although non-smokers may get COPD, too. In fact, up to 30 percent of people who are diagnosed COPD never smoked.

People with COPD find that it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe due to damage and inflammation of the airways. Although COPD has no cure, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can prevent further complications and make breathing easier.

Understanding symptoms of COPD

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Chronic productive cough (in other words, a cough that produces mucus
  • Shortness of breath (especially during physical activity)
  • Wheezing breath
  • 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 (HCP).

Diagnosis

To diagnose COPD, an HCP will first take a detailed medical history to evaluate your lifestyle, family history, risk factors (such as whether or not you smoke or smoked) and symptoms. An HCP may order pulmonary function tests to measure lung capacity, oxygen levels, and breathing efficiency. X-rays and CT scans, both imaging tests, may also be used to determine the severity of damage to the lungs or to rule out other conditions that may be responsible for breathing issues.

Patients should also be screened for alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, a genetic deficiency that can cause lung disease. AAT is responsible for 1 to 2 percent of COPD cases.

If you have symptoms of COPD, 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 for COPD

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. Having an AAT deficiency also increases one’s risk.

COPD prevention

Since smoking is the most common cause of COPD, the easiest way to lower your risk of 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 slow the progression of the disease. Smoke, even secondhand smoke, can also cause COPD symptoms to flare up and get worse.

Treatment for COPD

While there's no cure for COPD, there are several treatment options for COPD. 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 HCPs.

Two commonly prescribed medicines for COPD are:

  • Bronchodilators, a type of inhaled medicine that helps open the airways
  • Corticosteroids, a type of steroid that helps reduce inflammation

Some medicines will be used on a regular basis to keep symptoms under control and others may be used in urgent cases 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 a COPD action plan. This plan describes the 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 rehabilitation 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. It is also important to work with your HCP to come up with an appropriate exercise plan as well as a healthy eating plan.

Article sources open article sources

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Is COPD? Last updated on March 24, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basics About COPD. Last Reviewed: June 30, 2023.

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