What is COPD?

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a lung disease which makes breathing extremely difficult. COPD is a combination of lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In patients with COPD, the airways of the lungs thicken and fill with mucus, thus reducing air flow. COPD can lead to weakness, exhaustion, loss of body weight, and heart failure.

Fast Facts

COPD is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. The disease kills more than 120,000 Americans each year.

COPD is often mis- or under-diagnosed. It is estimated that 24 million Americans have impaired lung function, but less than 50% are actually diagnosed with COPD. That means that approximately 12-14 million Americans likely have the disease and don't even know it.

COPD is frequently considered a disease of the elderly; however, the average age of diagnosis is 53 years old, with younger patients (ages 45 to 54 years old) reporting more severe and frequent symptoms.

COPD is both preventable and treatable.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

Oftentimes an individual may have COPD for years without noticing any symptoms. As the disease progresses, however, a person with COPD may suffer from shortness of breath, coughing, excess mucus (or sputum) production, wheezing, weakness and exhaustion and loss of body weight. Many people with COPD avoid activities that they used to enjoy because they become short of breath more easily. COPD symptoms can get in the way of doing even the most basic activities of daily living, such as doing light housework, taking a walk, and even bathing and getting dressed. If you have any of these symptoms, you should ask yourself:

Are you over 40 years old with

  • A history of smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke?
  • A history of exposure to chemicals at work or at a residence in a high ozone/heavy smog area?
  • A history of respiratory problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or frequent deep, wet coughs?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you should make an appointment with your doctor now. You may also take this brief 5-question survey and share the results with your doctor. Your doctor may recommend a spirometry test, which can confirm a COPD diagnosis. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the better you will be able to fight the disease. COPD develops slowly, and can worsen over time, so be sure to report any symptoms you might have to your doctor as soon as possible, no matter how mild they may seem.

Am I at risk for COPD?


Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, with 80-90% of all COPD cases occurring in current or former smokers.

Environmental exposure

COPD can also occur in people who have had long-term exposure to things that can irritate your lungs, like certain chemicals, dust, or fumes in the workplace. Heavy or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke and other air pollutants may also contribute to COPD.


In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT, deficiency. While very few people know they have AAT deficiency, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 Americans have it. People with AAT deficiency can get COPD even if they have never smoked or had long-term exposure to harmful pollutants.

Getting tested for COPD

Everyone at risk for COPD who has a cough, sputum production or shortness of breath, should be tested for the disease. The test for COPD is called spirometry. Spirometry is a simple test of lung function that can detect COPD before symptoms become severe. It is a simple, noninvasive breathing test that measures how much and how fast a person can blow air out of his/her lungs. Based on this test, your doctor can determine whether or not you have COPD, and if so, how severe it is. The spirometry reading can help your doctor determine the best course of treatment.


Although there is no cure for COPD, with proper treatment, patients can live full, active lives. Doctor-prescribed medications can be of great help by opening up closed airways, reducing mucus and decreasing airway inflammation. Oxygen therapy can also help increase mobility. Breathing exercises, a proper diet and a doctor-approved exercise regimen can help you to stay active and remain healthy. In addition, many healthcare providers offer pulmonary rehabilitation courses which teach patients to cope with the challenges posed by lung disease. Just because you have COPD does not mean that you cannot live a full life.

Taking action if you are diagnosed with COPD

Quit Smoking

The best thing you can do to prevent more damage to your lungs is to quit smoking. To help you quit, call Breathe California for local cessation classes and up-to-date information.

Avoid Exposure to pollutants

Try to stay away from other things that could irritate your lungs, like dust and strong fumes. Stay indoors when the outside air quality is poor. You could also stay away from places where there might be cigarette smoke.

Visit your doctor on a regular basis

See your doctor regularly even if you are feeling fine. Make a list of your breathing symptoms and think about any activities that you can no longer do because of shortness of breath. Be sure to bring a list of all the medicines you are taking to each doctor's visit.

Get a flu shot every year

The flu can cause serious problems for people with COPD, so an annual flu shot is highly recommended. You should also ask your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine.

Fast Fact

80-90% of all COPD is caused by smoking.

Smokers are ten times more likely to die from COPD.

Source: United States Department of Health and Human Services