Understanding COPD


COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a combination of lung diseases that makes breathing difficult. It is estimated that more than 13 million Americans suffer from COPD, and many others who are at risk ignore the warning signs.

The two most common COPD conditions are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis inflames the bronchial tubes (that carry air to the lungs) and creates more than normal amounts of mucus. This causes narrowing of the tubes, making it difficult to breathe. With emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs are damaged, and the lungs are unable to move as much air in and out.

Most people with COPD have both conditions. That’s why it’s so important to take notice of any COPD symptoms you have. Common symptoms include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Expelling mucus when you cough
  • Shortness of breath (that worsens with activity)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent colds or flu
  • Lung infections (more than one per year)

Early detection of COPD is important. Many people ignore the early warning signs of the disease, thinking they are associated with something else. Tell your doctor right away if you suffer from these symptoms—especially shortness of breath. Don’t ignore the warning signs.

Long-term smoking is the main culprit for causing COPD.

Inhaling tobacco smoke irritates the lungs and destroys the lungs’ ability to stretch and take in air. Years of breathing in other irritants—such as chemical fumes, industrial dust and air pollution—can also cause the disease, as well as repeated lung infections during childhood and inherited risk factors (some people cannot make a certain protein to protect the lungs from damage).

To diagnose COPD, your doctor may perform a spirometry test—a common test used to assess how well your lungs work by measuring how much air you inhale and exhale and how quickly you exhale. Other tests, such as an X-ray or blood test to measure oxygen, may also be used. Once your doctor understands how well your lungs are functioning, he or she will be able to understand what stage of COPD you’re in and how to treat it.

If you have COPD, certain lifestyle changes can improve your quality of life.

  • Quit smoking if you do; it will slow the loss of lung function. Smoking only worsens COPD symptoms.
  • Follow a healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

Also, talk to your doctor about getting a flu shot and a pneumonia shot to try and avoid any COPD complications from these illnesses.

There’s no cure for COPD, but early detection can slow disease progression and help you manage your condition. Work with your doctor on a treatment plan to relieve symptoms, improve your ability to stay active and improve your overall health.