Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)


What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease. COPD makes it hard to breathe. The disease gets progressively worse over time if not treated early. Most people who have COPD have one or two related lung illnesses. These illnesses are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. If you have chronic bronchitis, the airways in your lungs become red, swollen, and full of mucus (a thick, stretchy substance in your throat). The mucus makes it hard to breathe. If you have emphysema, you have difficulty getting oxygen into your blood and carbon dioxide out of it. That’s what makes it more difficult to exhale (breathe out).


Symptoms of COPD

COPD can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • A long-lasting cough.
  • A cough that produces mucus.
  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity.
  • A tight feeling in the chest.
  • Wheezing.

COPD symptoms start slowly and get worse over a period of years if not diagnosed and treated early. Delaying diagnosis and treatment can lead to complications, such as heart problems (irregular heartbeat and heart failure), high blood pressure, and respiratory infections. Infections can further damage your lungs.


What causes COPD?

COPD is caused by damage to the lungs. Damage occurs from breathing in unhealthy substances over time. This includes air pollution, chemical fumes, gases, vapors, or mists, tobacco smoke (including secondhand smoke), and dust. The majority of COPD cases are caused by smoking.


How is COPD diagnosed?

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) does not recommend general screening for COPD. If you are showing symptoms of COPD, your doctor will perform an exam. He or she will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They will place a stethoscope on your chest and back to listen to you breathe.

An important test to diagnose COPD is called a spirometry test. This test involves breathing into a tube that is connected to a computer. The computer may have a graphic (such as candles or a brick wall). You are asked to take a deep breath and blow into the tube to blow out as many candles (or knock down as many bricks) as you can. You may be asked to repeat the test multiple times in order to get a good reading.


Can COPD be prevented or avoided?

The best way to prevent COPD is to not smoke. Also, limit your exposure to other things that can irritate your lungs over time. This includes secondhand smoke, air pollution (avoid being outside on days when air pollution is high), chemicals, and dust. According to the AAFP, death from COPD is preventable with early diagnosis and treatment.


COPD treatment

AAFP states that at-risk patients can receive life-saving treatment when diagnosed early with COPD. This includes:

  • Lifestyle changes: Stop smoking if you smoke or vape.
  • Medicines: Your doctor may prescribe one or more medicines to ease your symptoms and help you breathe. These medicines may include (oral) antibiotics (to treat infections), bronchodilators (inhaled medicine to relax the muscles around your airway), and (oral or inhaled) steroids (these control the inflammation in your lungs to help you breathe).
    • Inhaled medicines involve a small, handheld canister that you carry with you and use as needed or as your doctor has advised. Ask your doctor if you should use a spacer (a small, hollow device that filters the medicine as it goes into your lungs. This protects your throat against irritation). Some inhaled medicine is given through a nebulizer (a machine that turns liquid medicine into a vapor as it enters your lungs). A nebulizer is commonly used to treat people who have more serious COPD. It also helps people who have trouble using handheld inhalers.
  • Vaccines: Certain vaccines can prevent respiratory infections (such as the flu and pneumonia).
  • Oxygen therapy: You may have to use oxygen on regular basis to help you breathe. This would involve wearing a mask and having the oxygen tank with you to use as you need or as your doctor has advised.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: This is a combination of therapies to help you manage your disease. A team of health professionals will help you create a diet and exercise program to help you feel better.
  • Surgery: This is rare. This could involve a lung reduction operation or a lung transplant. This is usually a treatment of last resort.

Everyday Life

Living with COPD

Early diagnosis will lead to proper treatment and you will feel better. This may mean taking medicines and making lifestyle changes. The longer you let your COPD go untreated, the worse you will feel. Serious COPD will make it difficult to be physically active. This will affect even the simplest of activities, such as dressing and shopping. COPD symptoms may make you feel fatigued (overly tired). Having difficulty breathing also interferes with eating. Your doctor may discuss a plan for diet, nutrition, and supplements.


Questions to ask your doctor

  • How can I tell if my symptoms are COPD or the flu?
  • What lifestyle changes can I make at home to help reduce my symptoms?
  • What are the health risks associated with COPD?
  • Which vaccines will I need?
  • Is it safe for me to exercise? What kind of exercise can I do?