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    COPD Health Center

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    What Is COPD?

    Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to two long-term lung diseases -- chronic bronchitis and emphysema -- that often occur together. COPD makes it hard for you to breathe.

    Tubes called airways carry air into and out of your lungs. If you have COPD, these airways may become partly blocked from swelling or mucus. This makes it hard to breathe.

    At the end of the airways are many tiny air sacs. They’re like little balloons that inflate and deflate when you breathe in and out. With COPD, these sacs become less flexible. This can cause small airways to cave in. It can also make it harder for you to breathe.

    What Causes COPD?

    Cigarette smoking is the biggest cause. If you hang around other smokers a lot, that can play a role, too. You might also develop this condition if you’ve been exposed to things like dust, air pollution, or certain chemicals for long periods of time.

    In rare cases, your genes may put you at risk for COPD. People who lack a protein called alpha 1 antitrypsin (AAT) may be more likely to develop it. If they smoke and have COPD, it tends to get worse faster.

    What Are the Symptoms?

    These are the most common signs of COPD:

    • A cough that doesn't go away
    • Coughing up lots of mucus
    • Shortness of breath, especially when you’re physically active
    • Wheezing
    • Tightness in the chest

    How Do I Know If I Have It?

    Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. He’ll also do a physical exam and conduct breathing tests.

    The most common test is called spirometry. You’ll breathe into a large, flexible tube that’s connected to a machine called a spirometer. It’ll measure how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can blow air out of them.

    Your doctor may order other tests to rule out other lung problems, such as asthma or heart failure. These might include more lung function tests, a chest X-ray, or a test to measure the level of oxygen in your blood.

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