Understanding COPD

What is COPD?

COPD is a lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. COPD (short for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Obstruction in COPD means that the flow of air in and out of the lungs is less than it should be. When that happens less oxygen gets into the body tissues and it becomes harder to get rid of carbon dioxide which is the waste gas. As the disease gets worse, it is harder to remain active due to shortness of breath. Most importantly, COPD can be prevented and can be treated.

With chronic bronchitis the lining of the breathing tubes become swollen and produces a lot of mucus that gets coughed up. With emphysema the walls of the air sacs in the lung are broken down and the air spaces get larger and air gets trapped. Some people have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema, so we now prefer to call the disease COPD.

How Serious is COPD?

COPD is the 3rd leading cause of death in the US. It causes serious long-term disability and early death. At this time there is no cure for COPD. More than 12 million people are known to have COPD and up to 24 million may have the disease due to some not even knowing it. The number of people dying from COPD is growing. Deaths due to COPD in women are higher than in men. COPD is often not found until the disease is very advanced because people do not know the early warning signs. Sometimes people think they are short of breath or less able to do the things they are used to doing because they are "just getting old". But shortness of breath is never normal. The good news is that COPD can be found early and there is much that can be done to treat and help manage the disease.

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What Causes COPD?

  • Smoking is the major cause of COPD. The poisons in cigarette smoke can weaken the lungs' defense against infections, narrow air passages, cause swelling in air tubes and destroy air sacs.  About 80-90% of all COPD is caused by cigarette smoking.
  • Pollution in the air and irritating fumes and dusts, especially on the job, can also cause COPD.
  • A small number of people have a rare form of COPD called alpha-1 (AAT) related emphysema. This form of COPD is caused by an inherited lack of a protective protein in the blood.

>> Learn more about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of COPD.