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, CT scan, or a test to measure the level of oxygen in your blood.


What Are the Treatments for COPD?

There’s no cure, so the goal of treatment is to ease your symptoms and slow down its progress. Your doctor will also want to prevent or treat any complications and improve your overall quality of life.

Your treatment plan may include any of the following:

  • Bronchodilators . You inhale these medicines, and they help to open up your airways.
  • Corticosteroids . These drugs reduce airway inflammation.
  • Flu or pneumonia vaccines . These vaccines lower your risk for these illnesses.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation . This program includes exercise, disease management, and counseling to help you stay as healthy and active as possible.
  • Oxygen therapy . You may need this to reduce shortness of breath, protect your organs, and enhance your quality of life.

In severe cases of COPD, the doctor may suggest surgery to remove diseased lung tissue or to replace a diseased lung with a healthy one.

While there’s no cure, there are things you can do to stay healthy and reduce your symptoms. Try taking these steps to enhance your quality of life:

  • If you smoke, stop.
  • Avoid smoke, fumes, dust, and air pollution as much as you can.
  • Take your medications as directed.
  • Get regular check-ups.
  • Learn breathing exercises.
  • Walk or do other light exercises several times a week.
  • Eat a healthy diet.

When Should I Call 911?

Get medical help right away if any of these things happen to you:

  • You have a severe shortness of breath.
  • You can't walk or talk.
  • Your heart beats very fast or it has an irregular beat.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue.
  • You breathe fast and hard, even when taking medicines.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on March 06, 2019



American Lung Association: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Fact Sheet."

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "COPD" and "COPD: Learn More, Breathe Better."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)."

Journal of the American Medical Association: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease."

American Association for Respiratory Care: "Eating Right: Tips for the COPD Patient."

American Thoracic Society: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease."

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.