What is COPD?

COPD develops slowly and worsens over time, making it harder to breathe because less air is going in and out of the lungs. It’s sometimes called emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Get answers to common questions, information about pulmonary tests and rehabilitation, as well as videos showing tips on how you can learn to breathe easier.

What is COPD?

What Exactly is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

People often mistake becoming breathless and coughing more frequently as a normal part of getting orlder.  Could becoming short of breath more often be COPD?  Maybe.   According to the NIH Heart, Lung and Blood Institute(NHLBI), COPD develops slowly and worsens over time, making it harder to breathe because less air is going in and out of the lungs. It’s sometimes called emphysema or chronic bronchitis, according to the American Lung Association.  The COPD Foundation tells us that COPD can be developing for years without any real noticeable signs or shortness of breath.  The lungs, though, may be getting damaged and irritated by having smoked or being exposed to things like chemical fumes, air pollution or dust.  Below are answers to common questions and information to help you better understand COPD.


(Click to See Answers)

What are the signs and symptoms of COPD?
According to the CDC  (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the American Lung Association, the most common symptoms of COPD include any one or more of the following:

  • Constant cough, that some people call a “smoker’s cough”
  • Becoming short of breath while doing every day activities you used to be able to do
  • Wheezing
  • Feeling like you can’t breathe or chest  tightness when taking a deep breath
  • Coughing up a lot of mucus (phlegm or sometimes called sputum)
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (because of not getting enough oxygen)

Remember, shortness of breath is never normal!  It’s important to see your doctor as soon as you experience any of these symptoms.

Who's at risk for developing COPD?
The main cause of COPD is smoking, but people who do not smoke can also get COPD, according to the American Lung Association.  What you breathe in over time can irritate and damage your lungs.

The NHLBI and American Lung Association tells us that the environment we live and work in every day can be a factor in developing COPD.  For example, air pollution, secondhand smoke and exposure to dust, fumes and chemicals found in work-related environments, are the most common causes of COPD in the environment.

Having had respiratory infections as a child is another factor that places some people at risk for COPD, as well as a rare genetic (inherited) condition called Alpha-1 deficiency, according to the American Lung Association.

  • Talk with your doctor and medical team about Alpha-1 deficiency.  There is a simple test that can be done.  The Alpha-1 Foundation tells us more about this rare condition passed down from parent to their children through their genes.
Is COPD preventable and treatable?
The answer to both is YES.

Prevention – Here’s 5 things the American Lung Association tells us we can do to reduce the chances of developing COPD:

  • If you smoke, STOP.   Quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to help protect your lungs.
  • If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
  • Stay away from secondhand smoke.  Make your home and car smokefree.
  • Protect yourself from what you breathe in at work, if you are working in an environment with chemicals, dust and fumes.
  • Work with others in your neighborhood and communities to clean up the air and fight for cleaner air.

Treatment – There is no cure yet for COPD, but there are many ways to help you feel better, stay more active and slow the progress of the disease.  Your doctor may have you see someone who is a specialist, called a pulminoligist.  According to the NHLBI, the most common treatments for COPD are:

  • Making changes in your lifestyle, like stopping smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke or fumes that irritate your lungs.
  • Eat well and stay active.  Nutrition is a big part of avoiding infections and activities keep the body strong.
  • Medicines can be prescribed to relax the muscles around your lung airways to breathe easier.  These are called bronchodilators and are taken using a device called an inhaler.
  • Other medicines include drugs to help reduce the inflammation in your lung airways.  These are called steroids, which are most often breathed in using an inhaler.
  • If you are having trouble getting enough oxygen in your body, your doctor may prescribe breathing oxygen through a mask or prongs that rest in your nose.
  • Vaccines to prevent the flu or pneumonia.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program that includes exercise, information to help you manage your COPD and support from a team of health professionals.
  • Surgery may benefit some people, but is often not considered unless symptoms have not improved taking medications.


The # of people affected by COPD in the U.S., according to the CDC and NHBLI


The % of COPD cases caused by cigarette smoking, according to the American Lung Association

Tips on Breathing Easier from The American Lung Association


Tools & Resources at Your Fingertips

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Learn How to Manage and Live with COPD

What is a Pulmonary Function Test?

The American Thoracic Society answers our basic questions about what to expect when your doctor suggests you have a pulmonary function test.

What is Pulmonary Rehabilitation?

The American Thoracic Society answers our basic questions about what to expect from Pulmonary Rehabilitation.

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