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COPD's Effect on the Lungs - Topic Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) slowly damages the lungs and affects how you breathe.

COPD's effect on breathing

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Living With COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Quiz the average person on the street, and how many could tell you what it is? Would you know that it's the 4th leading cause of death in the United States? Not likely. But that is one of COPD's unfortunate claims to fame. A serious and progressive lung disease diagnosed in more than 13 million Americans, COPD develops when lungs become damaged from smoking and sometimes from heavy exposure to pollution, chemicals, or dusts. Genes may also play a role in the...

Read the Living With COPD article > >

In COPD, the airways of the lungs (bronchial tubes) become inflamed and narrowed. They tend to collapse when you breathe out and can become clogged with mucus. This reduces airflow through the bronchial tubes, a condition called airway obstruction, making it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs.

The inflammation of the bronchial tubes makes the nerves in the lungs very sensitive. In response to irritation, the body forces air through the airways by a rapid and strong contraction of the muscles of respiration—a cough. The rapid movement of air in the breathing tubes helps remove mucus from the lungs into the throat. People with COPD often cough a great deal in the morning after a large amount of mucus has built up overnight (smoker's cough).

The oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange

The lungs are where the blood picks up oxygen to deliver throughout the body and where it disposes of carbon dioxide that is a by-product of the body processes. COPD affects this process.

Emphysema can lead to destruction of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs that allow oxygen to get into the blood. Their destruction leads to the formation of large air pockets in the lung called bullae. These bullae do not exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide like normal lung tissue. Also, the bullae can become very large. Normal lung tissue next to the bullae cannot expand properly, reducing lung function.

Chronic bronchitis affects the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange because the airway swelling and mucus production can also narrow the airways and reduce the flow of oxygen-rich air into the lung and carbon dioxide out of the lung.

The damage to the alveoli and airways makes it harder to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen during each breath. Decreased levels of oxygen in the blood and increased levels of carbon dioxide cause the breathing muscles to contract harder and faster. The nerves in the muscles and lungs sense this increased activity and report it to the brain. As a result, you feel short of breath.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: March 12, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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