What Is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a category of progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and some forms of bronchiectasis. 


The most common symptom exhibited by people with COPD is increased shortness of breath. Some may think this commonly happens as people age, but this is not the case. Other symptoms include the following:

  • Cough
  • Excessive mucus production
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Unintended weight loss
COPD affects an estimated 24 million individuals in the U.S., and over half of them have symptoms of COPD and do not know it. Early screening can identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.
— COPD Foundation

Common Causes Of COPD

There are multiple causes of COPD, but the most prominent cause is cigarette smoking.  According to the Mayo Clinic, only about 25% of smokers develop the disease.  Other populations of people with COPD include those exposed to "other inhaled irritants including second hand smoke, cigar smoke, air pollution, and workplace exposure to dust, smoke, or fumes." There is a very small percentage of COPD patients who have developed the disease because of a genetic condition called alpha-1-antitrypsin.  This is a condition in which the body does not make a certain protein necessary for adequate lung function.

Diseases That Contribute To COPD

Emphysema: A condition where the alveoli (air sacs) in a person's lungs are damaged. This is usually due to smoking.

Chronic Bronchitis: This is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes (the airway that carries air from your wind pipe to your lungs). The inflamed bronchials cause people to have a chronic cough as well as increased mucus production. This makes it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs. This is also usually due to smoking.

Bronchiectasis: The bronchial tubes become widened and scarred due to infection or damage to the bronchial wall. This is most commonly caused by severe or repeated respiratory infections.

Tests To Determine Diagnosis

  • A chest x-ray or a chest CT scan can determine whether a person has emphysema.  This can also provide necessary information about other lung or heart issues.
  • A doctor may have a patient perform pulmonary function tests.  This will measure the amount of volume a person breathes in and out with each breath.  There are certain criteria that patients must meet in order to be diagnosed with COPD.
  • A venous blood gas may be performed to see how effectively a person is breathing.  This test shows how well a person is bringing in oxygen and  removing carbon dioxide from their bodies.


There are a variety of treatments for COPD depending on the severity of the disease.  Many people will be prescribed medications to manage their symptoms.  These may include bronchodilators (to open up the tubes leading to the lungs), inhaled steroids (to reduce inflammation in the lungs), antibiotics (if a respiratory illness is present), amongst other medications to manage the disease. 

Patients who have low oxygen saturation as a result of lung damage may also need to be on supplemental oxygen. A list of different administration methods of oxygen can be found under oxygen administration.  Most people require a nasal cannula for their oxygen delivery.  

In some cases, patients with severe COPD may qualify for surgery to increase lung function.  Some may even qualify for a lung transplant.

Resources For Help

COPD is the third leading cause of death, according to the American Lung Association.  If you or a person you know is suffering from the symptoms above, encourage them to seek the care of a doctor.  COPD is manageable when the right treatment is in place.  Improve your life today and get the help that you need!