Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Basics


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory (non-reversible) asthma. This disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness.

The disease affects millions of Americans and is the third leading cause of disease-related deaths in the U.S. The good news is COPD is often preventable and treatable. With the right diagnosis and treatment, there are many things you can do to manage your COPD and breathe better. People can live for many years with COPD and enjoy life.

There are two main forms of the disease:

  • Chronic bronchitis, which involves a long-term cough with mucus
  • Emphysema, which involves damage to the lungs over time


The main cause of COPD is smoking. The more a person smokes, the more likely that person will develop COPD. But some people smoke for years and never get the disease. In rare cases, nonsmokers who lack a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin can develop emphysema.

Other risk factors include:

  • Exposure to certain gases or fumes in the workplace
  • Exposure to heavy amounts of secondhand smoke and pollution
  • Frequent use of a cooking fire without proper ventilation


It’s easy to think of shortness of breath and coughing as a normal part of aging, but these could be signs of COPD. That’s why it is important to talk with your healthcare provider as soon as you notice any of these symptoms. COPD can progress for years without noticeable shortness of breath.

Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Cough, with or without mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Many respiratory infections
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) that gets worse with mild activity
  • Trouble catching one’s breath
  • Wheezing

Because the symptoms develop slowly, some people may not know that they have COPD.


The best test for COPD is a lung function test called spirometry. This involves blowing out as hard as possible into a small machine that tests lung capacity. The results can be checked right away. Using a stethoscope to listen to the lungs can also be helpful. But sometimes, the lungs sound normal, even when a person has the disease.

Imaging tests of the lungs, such as X-rays and CT scans may be ordered. With an x-ray, the lungs may look normal, even when a person has COPD. A CT scan will usually show signs of COPD.

Sometimes, a blood test called arterial blood gas may be done to measure the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.


Not all people with COPD have the same symptoms and treatment may differ from person to person. It is important to talk to your doctor about your treatment options.


A variety of medicines are used to treat the condition and there is no “best” medicine for all people. Each person’s COPD is different and your doctor and healthcare team will work with you to set up the best plan to address your symptoms and needs.

Types of medicines often prescribed for the disease include:

  • Bronchodilator. Bronchodilators relax the muscles around the airways, which helps to keep them open and makes breathing easier. Most bronchodilators are often delivered through an inhaler or can be nebulized so you breathe the medicine straight into your lungs.
  • Anti-Inflammatory. Decreasing inflammation leads to less swelling and mucus production in the airways and that makes it easier to breathe. These medicines are known as corticosteroids or steroids. They are usually inhaled with an inhaler device.
  • Combination Medicines. A corticosteroid, an anticholinergic and a beta-agonist can be combined into one inhaler or nebulizer solution.
  • Antibiotics. People with COPD do experience flare-ups with more coughing, more mucus and more shortness of breath. This is often caused by bacterial or viral infections. Your doctor may give you an antibiotic to keep on hand and fill for when you have an infection.
  • Vaccinations. COPD increases your risk of infection with influenza (flu) and pneumonia. Vaccines are available to protect you against the flu and you should get immunized every year. You need a yearly flu shot because the influenza virus changes slightly every year and you must get the latest and newest vaccine.
Pulmonary Rehabilitation

If you or someone you love suffers from a chronic lung disease like COPD, there is hope for rebuilding strength and enjoying a fuller, more active life. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs typically combine education, exercise training, nutrition advice and counseling.

Supplemental Oxygen

Your body needs oxygen to do everything from digesting food, daily household chores, to going to the grocery store. Sometimes with COPD, you require extra or supplemental oxygen (also called oxygen therapy).


Some people with very severe COPD symptoms may have a hard time breathing all of the time. In some of these cases, doctors may suggest lung surgery to improve breathing. Not everyone is a candidate for lung surgery.

If you have any problem, please ask your health care provider for help.

Keywords: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; COPD; emphysema; chronic bronchitis.

Related Posts:

What is the Relationship between Chronic Bronchitis and COPD?

What is Chronic Bronchitis?

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis?

Emphysema vs Chronic Bronchitis: Is There a Difference?

What are the Early Symptoms of Emphysema?

What are the Natural Remedies for Emphysema?

* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.