What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
COPD is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is caused by
damage to the lungs over many years, usually from smoking.
is often a mix of two diseases:
- Chronic bronchitis (say "bron-KY-tus").
In chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes ) get inflamed and make a lot of
mucus. This can narrow or block the airways, making it
hard for you to breathe.
- Emphysema (say "em-fuh-ZEE-muh"). In a
healthy person, the tiny air sacs in the lungs are like balloons. As you
breathe in and out, they get bigger and smaller to move air through your lungs.
But with emphysema, these air sacs are damaged and lose their stretch. Less air
gets in and out of the lungs, which makes you feel short of breath.
COPD gets worse over time. You can't undo the damage to
your lungs. But you can take steps to prevent more damage and to feel
What causes COPD?
COPD is almost always caused by
smoking. Over time, breathing tobacco smoke irritates the airways and destroys
the stretchy fibers in the lungs.
Other things that may put you
at risk include breathing chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution over a long
period of time. Secondhand smoke also may damage the lungs.
It usually takes
many years for the lung damage to start causing symptoms, so COPD is most
common in people who are older than 60.
You may be more likely to
get COPD if you had a lot of serious lung infections when you were a child.
People who get emphysema in their 30s or 40s may have a disorder that runs in
families, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. But this is rare.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms
- A long-lasting (chronic) cough.
- Mucus that comes up when you cough.
- Shortness of breath that gets worse when you exercise.
As COPD gets worse, you may be short of breath even when
you do simple things like get dressed or fix a meal. It gets harder to eat or
exercise, and breathing takes much more energy. People often lose weight and
At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get
much worse. This is called a COPD exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). An
exacerbation can range from mild to life-threatening. The longer you have COPD,
the more severe these flare-ups will be.
How is COPD diagnosed?
To find out if you have
COPD, a doctor will:
- Do a physical exam and listen to your lungs.
- Ask you questions about your past health and whether you smoke
or have been exposed to other things that can irritate your lungs.
- Have you do breathing tests, including
spirometry, to find out how well your lungs work.
- Do chest
X-rays and other tests to help rule out other problems
that could be causing your symptoms.
If there is a chance you could have COPD, it is very
important to find out as soon as you can. This gives you time to take steps to
slow the damage to your lungs.