Learn About COPD

The more you understand about COPD the better you and your loved ones can manage living with this disease.

What Is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic lung disease that causes air flow limitation (less air in and out of the airways) and breathing-related symptoms. There is no cure, but there are ways to manage and treat COPD. 

Key Points

  • COPD is chronic. In other words, you live with it every day.
  • It is progressive, meaning it gets worse over time.
  • COPD is diagnosed by reviewing your medical history, a physical examination and examining your spirometry test results. 
  • Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the most common types of COPD. You can be diagnosed with both of these, and this is also called COPD.

How COPD Affects Your Body

Not everyone with COPD has the same symptoms. At first, you may have no symptoms or mild symptoms. As your COPD gets worse, you may have more symptoms like a cough that may bring up sputum (mucus or phlegm) or shortness of breath. 

With COPD, less air flows in and out of your airways for one or more reasons:

  • airways in your lungs become narrowed due to being swollen (inflamed) and thickened 
  • walls between your air sacs are destroyed
  • airways and tiny air sacs lose their ability to stretch and shrink back 
  • airways make more mucus which can clog them and block air flow

When less air flows into your lungs, less oxygen gets into your body tissues. Oxygen, one of the gases found in the air we breathe, is vital for our lungs and organs to work properly. Oxygen is exchanged for waste product or carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is removed from the blood stream when you exhale. When it becomes harder to get air in and out of your airways, you may have more breathing-related symptoms.

COPD in Women

More women are living with COPD compared to men and deaths from COPD are higher in women than in men. There are a few reasons why this happens.

In the late 1960s, the tobacco industry intensely targeted women. This resulted in a huge increase in women smoking. We are still seeing new cases of smoking related diseases, including COPD, as women age.

Women are more vulnerable than men to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants. Their lungs are smaller and estrogen may play a role in worsening lung disease. Women also develop severe COPD at a younger age than men with less cigarette smoke exposure. 

Because COPD has long been thought of as a man’s disease, many healthcare providers still do not expect to see it in women and may miss the proper diagnosis.

Join the Patient & Caregiver Network

Your community is here to support you. Whether you’re a patient living with a chronic lung disease or a caregiver, join the Patient & Caregiver Network to get direct access to timely education, support, and connection.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: June 10, 2024

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