What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

When you breathe, air travels through tubes in your lungs—called airways—to millions of tiny air sacs. In a healthy lung, the airways are open and the air sacs fill up with air. Then the air goes quickly out.

COPD makes it hard to get air through the airways and into and out of the air sacs.

COPD includes two lung problems:

  • “Chronic bronchitis” is increased cough and mucus production caused by inflammation of the airways. Bronchitis is considered chronic (or long-term) if a person coughs and produces excess mucus most days during three months in a year, for two years in a row.
  • “Emphysema” is associated with damage of the air sacs and/or collapse of the smallest breathing tubes in the lungs.

Smoking Causes 80-90% of all Cases

The largest cause of COPD is a history of smoking cigarettes. Habitual smoking can inflame the linings of the airways in the lungs and can make the airways lose their elastic quality. Other external factors that put you at risk of developing COPD are exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke, and occupational dust or chemicals. Heredity can also play a role. Scientists have discovered what’s known as an alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which is the source of a small proportion of cases of COPD. Researchers also suspect that other genetic factors may make certain smokers predisposed to the disease.

Signs and Symptoms of COPD

Common signs and symptoms of COPD include coughing that may produce mucus, shortness of breath, and fatigue. As the disease progresses, these COPD symptoms may become more problematic.

COPD is a progressive disease, meaning it typically gets worse over time. That’s why it’s extremely important to talk to your healthcare provider right away if you’re experiencing any symptoms common to COPD. The sooner you’re diagnosed, the better you and your doctor can start to manage it. Making some adjustments in your lifestyle is always a good place to start.