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What Is COPD?

Everything You Need to Know About COPD

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Dayton Respiratory Center

Aug 18 2022

6 mins read

It's common to have occasional cold symptoms, like breathing difficulties or a cough. But if you have a persistent cough or frequently experience breathlessness, it could signal a more serious problem.

One of the most common and severe lung disorders is COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). It is the third leading cause of death worldwide; according to the World Health Organization, 3.23 million people died from COPD in 2019.

Want to learn more about COPD? Here's everything you need to know.

What Is COPD?

COPD is a pulmonary condition characterized by inflammation and mucus buildup in the lungs. It results in obstructed airflow and makes it hard to breathe.

COPD develops when there is damage to the lungs. It is also progressive, meaning it gets worse over time. In the early stages, COPD may cause shortness of breath only during physical activity. But as the disease progresses, you may feel out of breath even when you are at rest.

When we breathe, our respiratory system goes through a series of steps:

  1. Air enters through the nose
  2. Air then passes through the bronchioles (the smaller branches of the bronchi) to the alveoli (air-filled sacs)
  3. Our lungs take in oxygen through the walls of the alveoli
  4. Oxygen enters the blood
  5. Carbon dioxide leaves the blood through the alveoli walls

Human Lungs|NIH

COPD disrupts this process. Any inflammation in the bronchioles or damage to the alveoli walls can block airflow and slow oxygen uptake in the lungs.

What Are the Different Types of COPD?

There are two main types of COPD: Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis.

Emphysema is marked by damage to the alveoli walls. Typically, gases — like oxygen and carbon dioxide — are exchanged through these walls. So, any damage to them decreases the surface area available for gas exchanges, resulting in coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation to the lining of the bronchial tubes — the air passages that lead to the alveoli. When these tubes are inflamed, mucus builds up and restricts airflow even further.

Types Of COPD|TheConversation

In most cases, people with COPD suffer from both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. However, the severity of each condition may differ from person to person.

What Causes COPD?

The primary cause of COPD is long-term exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke. While smokers are at a higher risk of developing COPD, secondhand cigarette smoke also increases your risk.

Other factors that cause COPD include:

  • Air pollution
  • Occupational exposure to dust, chemicals or fumes
  • Indoor air pollution — fumes from burning fuel for cooking (in developing countries)
  • Deficiency of alpha-1 antitrypsin due to a genetic disorder
  • Childhood asthma
  • Underdeveloped lungs — due to premature birth, poor in-utero growth, or severe respiratory infections in childhood

What Are the Symptoms of COPD?

Some of the early signs of COPD are:

  • Mild reoccurring cough
  • Shortness of breath — especially after exercise
  • Frequently clearing your throat

As COPD worsens, it may cause more severe symptoms like:

  • Breathlessness — even with little physical activity
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Persistent cough with mucus
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs

How Is COPD Diagnosed?

COPD is usually diagnosed based on your symptoms, physical examination, and test results.

COPD diagnosis involves the following stages:

  1. Medical History — Your doctor will ask you:
    1. If you have symptoms — how often do they occur? How long do they last?
    2. If you smoke or have exposure to secondhand smoke
    3. If your occupation involves exposure to irritants
    4. If there's a history of COPD in your family
  2. Physical Examination — Your doctor will:
    1. Conduct a chest examination
    2. Look for swelling in your ankles or legs
    3. Examine your nose and throat
  3. Tests — Your doctor might suggest a few tests depending on your condition to confirm the diagnosis. These include:
    1. Spirometry
      1. Determines your lung function — how well your lungs work
      2. Measures how much air you can inhale (Forced vital capacity, FVC) and how fast you can exhale (Forced expiratory volume, FEV1)
    2. Arterial Blood Gases (ABGs)
      1. Measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
      2. Shows if you have any lung damage
    3. X-ray or CT-scan
      1. Determines damage caused to your lungs
      2. Helps rule out the possibility of lung cancer
    4. ECG (Electrocardiogram)
      1. Determines if your heart functions normally
      2. Tells if breathlessness is due to a heart condition

After diagnosis, you'll receive a "grade" for your COPD. This value is based on your condition's severity and your spirometry test results.

Early diagnosis and treatment help slow the progression of COPD and prevent further damage to your lungs.

What Are the Stages of COPD?

The different stages of COPD are:

  1. Mild — symptoms are mild and may often go unnoticed. You may experience shortness of breath after walking fast or climbing the stairs.
  2. Moderate — symptoms are more visible. You may experience shortness of breath after physical activity and cough more frequently. Your mucus production may also increase.
  3. Severe — symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing increase as the lung function decreases.
  4. Very Severe — stage 3 symptoms worsen, and breathing becomes difficult. You may require hospitalization due to breathing difficulty, lung infection or respiratory failure.

Can You Prevent COPD?

Since COPD is caused by exposure to lung irritants, the best way to prevent COPD is by not using tobacco.

You can also prevent COPD by:

  • Staying away from secondhand smoke
  • Using protective gear in your workplace if your occupation involves exposure to lung irritants (i.e., chemical fumes, asbestos, etc.)
  • Using masks in highly polluted areas

How Is COPD Treated?

COPD is not curable, but you can effectively treat it to prevent further complications and slow its progression.

Each person's COPD is different. Therefore, treatment approaches also differ depending on your symptoms and the extent of your lung damage.

  • For example, if you have difficulty eating due to shortness of breath or tiredness, you'll be advised to:
    • Follow a special diet with smaller, more frequent meals
    • Rest before eating
    • Take vitamins and supplements
  • If you have chronic breathing problems, your treatment might include:
    • Exercise — aerobics, cardio, strength training, etc.
    • Breathing exercises
    • Nutritional counseling
    • Mental health counseling
    • Techniques to conserve energy
    • Other ways to manage your lung condition

Other COPD treatments might also involve:

  • Medications, such as:
    • Bronchodilators — relax the airway muscles, open up the airways, and facilitate breathing
    • Steroids — reduce swelling in the airways
    • Antibiotics — treat infections
    • Flu vaccine — prevent respiratory issues caused by the flu
  • Oxygen Therapy — if your oxygen levels are low due to COPD
  • Surgery — if your condition doesn't improve with medications and other treatments. These include:


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a chronic disease caused by damage to the lungs. It doesn't have a cure, but it can be prevented, treated, and managed if diagnosed early.

Talk to your doctor if you have breathing difficulties, long-lasting symptoms, or other potential signs of COPD. A persistent cough might not always be COPD, but it's best to check with a professional just to be safe.

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