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What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is a group of progressive lung diseases.

The most common of these diseases are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Many people with COPD have both of these conditions.

Emphysema slowly destroys air sacs in your lungs, which interferes with outward air flow. Bronchitis causes inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which allows mucus to build up.

It’s estimated that about 30 million people in the United States have COPD. As many as half are unaware that they have it.

Untreated, COPD can lead to a faster progression of disease, heart problems, and worsening respiratory infections.


What are the symptoms of COPD?

COPD makes it harder to breathe. Symptoms may be mild at first, beginning with intermittent coughing and shortness of breath. As it progresses, symptoms can become more constant to where it can become increasingly difficult to breathe.

You may experience wheezing and tightness in the chest or have excess sputum production. Some people with COPD have acute exacerbations, which are flare-ups of severe symptoms.

Early symptoms

At first, symptoms of COPD can be quite mild. You might mistake them for a cold.

Early symptoms include:

  • occasional shortness of breath, especially after exercise

  • mild but recurrent cough

  • needing to clear your throat often, especially first thing in the morning

You might start making subtle changes, such as avoiding stairs and skipping physical activities.

Worsening symptoms

Symptoms can get progressively worse and harder to ignore. As the lungs become more damaged, you may experience:

  • shortness of breath, after even mild forms of exercise like walking up a flight of stairs

  • wheezing, which is a type of higher-pitched noisy breathing, especially during exhalations

  • chest tightness

  • chronic cough, with or without mucus

  • need to clear mucus from your lungs every day

  • frequent colds, flu, or other respiratory infections

  • lack of energy

In later stages of COPD, symptoms may also include:

  • fatigue

  • swelling of the feet, ankles, or legs

  • weight loss

Symptoms are likely to be much worse if you currently smoke or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.

Learn more about the symptoms of COPD.

Emergency treatment

Immediate medical care is needed if:

  • you have bluish or gray fingernails or lips, as this indicates low oxygen levels in your blood

  • you have trouble catching your breath or can’t talk

  • you feel confused, muddled, or faint

  • your heart is racing

What causes COPD?

  • Most people with COPD are at least 40 years old and have at least some history of smoking. The longer and more tobacco products you smoke, the greater your risk of COPD is.

  • In addition to cigarette smoke, cigar smoke, pipe smoke, and secondhand smoke can cause COPD. Your risk of COPD is even greater if you have asthma and smoke.

Other causes

  • You can also develop COPD if you’re exposed to chemicals and fumes in the workplace. Long-term exposure to air pollution and inhaling dust can also cause COPD.

  • In developing countries, along with tobacco smoke, homes are often poorly ventilated, forcing families to breathe fumes from burning fuel used for cooking and heating.

  • There may be a genetic predisposition to developing COPD. Up to an estimated 5 percent of people with COPD have a deficiency in a protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin.

  • This deficiency causes the lungs to deteriorate and also can affect the liver. There may be other associated genetic factors at play as well.

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