Key Points About COPD

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a group of progressive lung diseases that typically includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD is not contagious.
  • As many as 30 million people in the U.S. have COPD, and as many as half of these people have not been diagnosed.
  • Patients who have COPD are more likely to develop heart disease, lung cancer, and other lung conditions. 
  • The main cause of COPD is smoking. Generally, COPD develops over time.
  • Quitting smoking is the first-line therapy for COPD.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis typically occur together. 
Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes are damaged, leading to irritation and swelling. As the swelling progresses, people feel short of breath and start coughing regularly. If the cough produces mucus and lasts more than three months for two years, it is considered chronic bronchitis.Emphysema is a lung condition characterized by shortness of breath. It can develop as the alveoli, the air sacs at the end of the bronchioles, are damaged from smoking or other irritants.While COPD is not curable, with early diagnosis and treatment, you can live a quality life for many years.If left untreated, COPD will continue to progress, potentially causing heart issues and worsening respiratory infections.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes

Cigarette smoking is the largest cause of COPD. According to the American Lung Association, 20 to 30 percent of long-time smokers develop COPD.

Other causes of COPD include:

  • Exposure to chemicals and fumes.
  • Continuous exposure to air pollution.
  • Inhaling dust.
  • Genetic predisposition. 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) risk factors

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the American Lung Association, approximately 85 to 90 percent of COPD cases are caused by smoking. Compared to men and women who have never smoked, smokers are more than 12 times as likely to die from COPD. You also are at higher risk, the longer you have smoked or used tobacco products. People who have asthma and smoke are at the highest risk of developing COPD.

Other factors that increase your risk of COPD include:

  • Being over 40. Smokers or former smokers over 40 are at higher risk of developing COPD. 
  • Long-term exposure to pollution in the environment.
  • Being exposed to secondhand smoke regularly.
  • Having a history of respiratory infections as a child.
  • Working with chemicals, dust, or fumes.
  • Having alpha-1 deficiency (a genetic condition).

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) Symptoms

Typically, symptoms of COPD do not appear until the disease has progressed significantly. If you have unexplained shortness of breath or a combination of any of the symptoms outlined below, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Symptoms and signs of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Chronic cough that produces mucus that is clear, white, yellow, or greenish.
  • Fatigue.
  • Recurring respiratory infections. 
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Blue lips or fingernails.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) Treatment

Your doctor will evaluate your condition to customize a treatment plan for your case. Some treatment plans are developed to decrease breathlessness, while others reduce your risk of exacerbations, and others increase your ability to perform your daily activities.

While treatments cannot cure COPD or fix the damage to your lungs, they slow the disease's progression and help you improve or maintain your quality of life.

Treatments for COPD may include:

  • Lifestyle changes
  • Medications
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation (a rehab program that combines lung exercise training, education, nutrition, and counseling)
  • Surgery

When to Seek Care

Contact your doctor if you have symptoms of COPD, especially shortness of breath. While many people mistake shortness of breath as a typical sign of aging, it can be an early indicator of COPD. Early diagnosis and intervention can lead to better clinical outcomes. 

Seek immediate emergency care if you:

  • Are not able to catch your breath.
  • Develop blue lips or fingernails.
  • Have a rapid heartbeat.
  • Have trouble concentrating.

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