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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. Many smokers suffer from COPD symptoms, which include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

There's no cure for COPD, but UPMC's doctors can help you manage symptoms so you feel better.

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What Is COPD?

Doctors define COPD as a severe disease of the lungs. It happens when your lungs become inflamed or damaged — often from smoking.

The lungs can't move air easily in and out when you breathe, so you cough and feel short of breath.

16 million Americans have a diagnosis of COPD, according to the CDC. Millions more likely have it but don't know it or haven't gotten diagnosed.

COPD is a progressive disease that starts slowly and worsens over time, eventually affecting your ability to enjoy life.

COPD is also a leading cause of disability. In advanced COPD stages, many people have trouble doing basic tasks like cooking or caring for themselves.

Most people get COPD because they smoke. Air pollution, second-hand smoke, and genetics can also cause COPD. Both men and women get COPD.

While there's no cure for COPD, doctors can help slow the progress of the disease.

You can make lifestyle changes and try COPD treatment to improve your quality of life.

What are the types of COPD?

There are two forms of COPD — emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

  • Emphysema. This happens when the air sacs in the lungs get damaged. Healthy air sacs act like balloons, filling up with air and then deflating when you breathe out. Damaged air sacs can't move the air easily out of your body.
  • Chronic bronchitis. This happens when there's long-term irritation and inflammation in the lining of the airways. Thick mucus forms and makes it hard for you to breathe. You may develop a characteristic "smoker's cough."

Some people have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Others have asthma symptoms along with COPD.

What causes COPD?

Smoking cigarettes is the main cause of COPD.

You may also get COPD after long-term exposure to:

  • Second-hand smoke.
  • Chemical fumes.
  • Air pollution.

What are COPD risk factors and complications?

Several factors raise your chances of getting COPD.

COPD risk factors

Risk factors for COPD include:

  • A genetic condition. If you inherit a condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, you're more likely to get COPD. AAT makes you more vulnerable to smoke and chemical fumes. If you have AAT, you're also more likely to get COPD at a younger age.
  • Age. Most people diagnosed with COPD are over 40.
  • Asthma. People who already have asthma are more likely to develop COPD. Asthma is a lung disease that causes swelling of the airways.
  • Environmental irritants. Air pollution or chemical fumes from your workplace may damage your lungs. Second-hand cigarette smoke in the workplace can also be a factor.
  • Lung disease as a child. If you had lung problems as a child, you are more likely to get COPD as an adult.
  • Other health issues. If you have a condition such as HIV, pneumonia, or tuberculosis, you're more likely to develop COPD.
  • Smoking cigarettes. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke.

Complications of COPD

COPD can lead to other physical, mental, and emotional complications.

If you have COPD, you're more likely to:

  • Get chronic diseases like arthritis, heart failure, diabetes, and stroke.
  • Develop memory loss.
  • Have depression or anxiety.
  • Have physical limitations like trouble walking or going up a set of stairs.
  • Lose weight and muscle.
  • Miss out on social events with family and friends.
  • Need an oxygen tank to help you breathe.
  • Quit working before you want to.

How can I prevent COPD?

The best way to prevent COPD is by not smoking. If you do smoke, try to quit as soon as possible.

Your PCP can talk to you about the best way to quit, including products, programs, and support groups.

You can also prevent complications from COPD by staying up to date on your vaccines. Getting routine flu and pneumonia shots helps prevent lung infections.

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COPD Symptoms and Diagnosis COPD

What are the signs and symptoms of COPD?

Many people don't know they have COPD because symptoms are mild at first.

Here's what you should look out for.

  • A cough. The cough in COPD is often the first symptom and produces a lot of mucus. Some people call it the "smoker's cough."
  • A tight feeling in your chest.
  • Shortness of breath, especially when you're exercising or even walking.
  • Wheezing, whistling, or squeaking when you breathe.

There are times when symptoms flare up and get suddenly worse. Triggers include substances in the environment or an infection in your body.

How do you diagnose COPD?

Doctors diagnose COPD with a simple test called spirometry.

You blow as hard as possible into a tube connected to a machine. The machine measures how well your lungs are working.

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What Are the Treatment Options for COPD?

There's no cure for COPD. But you can learn to manage your symptoms and slow down your disease's progression.

Quit smoking

The most crucial part of COPD treatment is to quit smoking.

UPMC offers many resources to help you kick the smoking habit. Your provider can help direct you to programs, support groups, and products to help.

If you need to see a specialist, your PCP can direct you to a lung specialist. The doctors there perform cutting-edge research in lung disease, including COPD.

Other treatments to ease COPD symptoms

Other ways your doctor may suggest treating the symptoms of COPD are:

  • Exercise therapy. This teaches you to breathe better and conserve energy during exercise and movement.
  • Medicines. Your doctor may suggest bronchodilators and steroids. They may prescribe an inhaler to always carry with you.
  • Nutrition therapy. A healthy diet will help make you stronger.
  • Supplemental oxygen. You may need a portable oxygen tank if your oxygen levels are low.
  • Surgery. In rare cases, your doctor may suggest lung volume reduction surgery. For very advanced diseases, they may consider a lung transplant.
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Last reviewed by Donna Geraci, CRNP on 2024-03-28.

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