Understanding COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a combination of lung damage and mucous production that makes it hard to breathe. COPD is used to describe emphysema, chronic bronchitis or a combination of the two. 
  • Emphysema is a chronic condition caused by damage to the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli). When the lungs are exposed to cigarette smoke and other chemicals over a long period of time, the alveoili become damaged and lose their ability to properly absorb oxygen and distribute it to the rest of the body. This can make a person feel short of breath and tired. The most common cause of emphysema is smoking, but it can also be caused by air pollutants. Once alveoli become damaged, they cannot be repaired; there is no cure for emphysema.
  • Chronic bronchitis is a long-term swelling or inflammation of the bronchi, or airways, in combination with a cough that produces sputum. When the bronchi become inflamed, they produce excessive amounts of mucus, which further blocks the airways. Essentially, the body damages itself by trying to protect against harmful substances. This mucous blocks the airways and makes it difficult for air to get to the lungs. This can make a person have difficulty breathing.

This combination of tissue damage and mucous buildup is called COPD. COPD is a chronic condition that worsens over time. Because it is slow to onset, the symptoms may not be noticeable until they are severe enough to interrupt daily activities.

Currently, there is no cure for COPD. However, COPD can be controlled with proper treatment and management.

24 million Americans are estimated to have COPD, including more than 1 million Illinois residents. In December 2010, it was announced that COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

What are the signs and symptoms of COPD?
In the early stages of COPD, there may be no noticeable symptoms, but COPD worsens over time. Signs and symptoms vary based on the disease severity, secondary infections or other disease processes. Common symptoms include:
  • shortness of breath
  • chronic cough with or without mucus
  • wheezing
  • chest tightness

If you think you may have COPD, see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is COPD prevented?
Smoking is the most common cause of COPD; it is estimated to cause between 80 and 90 percent of all cases and can occur in current and former smokers. To help prevent COPD, quit smoking immediately. If you don't smoke, don't start! For more information on quitting smoking, visit our Quit Smoking pages.

Other risk factors include long-term exposure to indoor and/or outdoor air pollutants, including secondhand smoke. When possible, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke and other things that can irritate your lungs, such as dust, fumes, and air pollution. For more information on air pollution, visit our Air Quality pages.

In some cases, COPD may be caused by alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic condition. For more information on alpha-1, view our Understanding COPD: Alpha-1 page. 

How is COPD diagnosed?

COPD is diagnosed with a spirometry test, which tests how much air your lungs hold and how quickly you can exhale. To be tested, your health care provider will ask you to breathe into a spirometer as hard and as long as you can. Once COPD is diagnosed, your health care provider can work with you to determine an action plan to control your COPD.

Because COPD worsens over time, it is important that it is diagnosed early to manage symptoms before they become too severe. People who should have their lung function tested often include people who smoke, have smoked in the past, have a history of exposure to lung irritants, have a family history of the disease, or are experiencing symptoms. 

If you think you have COPD, visit a health care provider for a diagnosis. 

How is COPD treated?
There is no cure for COPD, and treatment for COPD will depend on how severe the disease is. Treatment may include medications, pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy and/or surgery. To learn more, visit our Managing COPD pages. 

Can other chronic illnesses affect COPD?
COPD has been associated with other health conditions, such as heart failure, pneumonia, osteoporosis and diabetes. Because COPD lowers the lungs' ability to transfer oxygen to the blood, the rest of the body suffers from lower oxygen levels, which can negatively affect a person's health. For more information, visit our Understanding COPD: Comorbidities page. 

People who have COPD are often more likely to develop lung cancer. For more information on lung cancer, visit our Lung Cancer page. 

How does Respiratory Health Association help?
Our COPD Initiative is at the forefront of educating the public, medical professionals and those affected by COPD to raise awareness about this widespread yet unknown disease.

Specifically, we offer educational opportunities for people living with COPD, caregivers and medical professionals including:

In addition, the COPD Initiative works closely with several pulmonary rehabilitation programs and support groups throughout Illinois to support activities for people living with COPD.

Furthermore, Respiratory Health Association is a leading voice on public policy issues affecting COPD. People who have COPD and caregivers are encouraged to get involved in advocacy efforts to raise awareness about COPD among state and federal legislators. Writing letters, making phone calls, and attending United for Lung Health Advocacy Days are just few ways you can join the effort!

To learn more about living with COPD, visit our COPD Library