Understanding COPD

What Is COPD?

COPD (short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is an obstructive lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. COPD is a disease that involves inflammation and thickening of the airways. It also involves destruction of the tissue of the lung where oxygen is exchanged.

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 the waste gas carbon dioxide. As the disease gets worse, it becomes more difficult to remain active due to shortness of breath.

Sometimes referred to as either chronic bronchitis or emphysema, most people will have symptoms of both conditions, so health professionals prefer to call the disease COPD.

However, some doctors think that chronic bronchitis may be present even though a person does not have the airway obstruction characteristic of COPD. Your doctor can explain your condition and the best way to treat it.

It is important to remember that in many cases, COPD can be prevented and can be treated.

How Serious Is COPD?

COPD is the third 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 11 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. To learn more about the rise of COPD in women read our newest disparities report.

COPD on the Rise
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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.

Want to see the rate of COPD for your own state?

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 deficiency A protein made in the liver. It helps protect the body's organs, especially the lungs, from the harmful effects of other proteins. AAT deficiency occurs if the AAT proteins aren't the right shape and therefore can't get into the bloodstream to do their job. This leads to an increased risk of lung diseases, like COPD. 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 and how to prevent COPD.