COPD Education

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

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(COPD) is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. “Progressive” means the disease gets worse over time.

COPD can cause coughing that produces large amounts of mucus (a slimy substance), wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants – such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust – also may contribute to COPD.

COPD is a major cause of disability, and it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States. Currently, millions of people are diagnosed with COPD. Many more people may have the disease and not even know it.

COPD develops slowly. Symptoms often worsen over time and can limit your ability to do routine activities. Severe COPD may prevent you from doing even basic activities like walking, cooking, or taking care of yourself.

Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed in middle-aged or older adults. The disease isn’t passed from person to person – you can’t catch it from someone else.

COPD has not cure yet, and doctors don’t know how to reverse the damage to the airways and lungs. However, treatments and lifestyle changes can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?

At first, COPD may cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, symptoms usually become more severe. Common signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • An ongoing cough or a cough that produces a lot of mucus (often called “smoker’s cough”)
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
  • Chest tightness

If you have COPD, you also may have colds or the flu (influenza) often.

Not everyone who has the symptoms above has COPD. Likewise, not everyone who has COPD has these symptoms. Some of the symptoms of COPD are similar to the symptoms of other diseases and conditions. Your doctor can find out whether you have COPD.

How is COPD Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose COPD based on your signs and symptoms, your medical and family histories, and test results.

Your doctor may ask whether you smoke or have had contact with lung irritants, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust.

If you have an ongoing cough, let your doctor know how long you’ve had it, how much you cough, and how much mucus comes up when you cough. Also, let your doctor know whether you have a family history of COPD.

Your doctor will examine you and use a stethoscope to listen for wheezing or other abnormal chest sounds. He or she also may recommend one or more tests to diagnose COPD.

How is COPD Treated?

COPD has no cure. However, lifestyle changes and treatments can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.

The goals of COPD treatment include:

  • Relieving your symptoms
  • Slowing the progress of the disease
  • Improving your exercise tolerance (your ability to stay active)
  • Preventing and treating complications
  • Improving your overall health

To assist with your treatment, your family doctor may advise you to see a pulmonologist. This is a doctor who specializes in treating lung disorders.


Posted on July 23rd, 2015 and last modified on November 4th, 2016.