Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a disease of the lungs. A person with COPD has trouble breathing. This is because the airways – the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs – are damaged.

COPD includes disorders such as emphysema (em-fa-seema) and chronic bronchitis. COPD is a serious lung disease that develops slowly. It may be many years before a person with lung damage starts to have symptoms of COPD.

What causes COPD?

COPD can be caused by different things:

  • Tobacco smoke – The most common cause of COPD is tobacco smoke. COPD can happen in people who smoke now, and sometimes in people who have smoked in the past. People exposed to secondhand smoke are also at risk for COPD.
  • Air pollutants – Chemicals, dust, fumes and secondhand smoke are examples of air pollutants that can cause COPD if a person breathes them in over a long period of time. People may be exposed to these pollutants either at home or at work.
  • Genetic factors – In some people, COPD can be caused by a disease called alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency that they have inherited from their parents. In people with AAT deficiency, their bodies do not make a type of protein that helps to protect the lungs. AAT deficiency is not a common cause of COPD.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath, especially when you are doing activities that you used to be able to do
  • Phlegm (mucus) production
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound) in the chest when you breathe
  • Feeling like you can't take a deep breath
  • Tightness in the chest

How common is COPD?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 24 million Americans have COPD, and only about half have been diagnosed. In the United States, COPD is the third leading cause of death.

Since 2001, the death rate from COPD has been higher in women than in men. This may be due to the increase in smoking by women since the 1940s. The good news is that as tobacco use has become less common in both men and women over the past 25 years, the number of people with COPD between the ages of 25-54 has dropped.

Should I get tested for COPD?

Talk with your health care provider about getting tested for COPD if you are having any of the symptoms listed above, or if you are concerned you may be at risk for COPD. Your provider can find COPD by giving you a breathing test called spirometry. This is a simple test that measures the amount of air a person can blow out of their lungs and also how fast they can blow air out.

What can I do if I am at risk for getting COPD?

  • Quit smoking – talk to your health care provider if you are having trouble quitting on your own. You can also call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Avoid air pollutants – like strong fumes and secondhand smoke.
  • Talk with your health care provider if you are concerned about your risk for COPD.

Can COPD be treated?

Yes, but the damage to the lungs in COPD cannot be reversed. Treatment and lifestyle changes can help a person with COPD feel better and slow the damage to the lungs.

The most important parts of treatment are staying away from tobacco smoke and other damaging air pollutants. Medications are available to help treat COPD symptoms like coughing and wheezing. People with severe forms of COPD may need to use a machine that gives them extra oxygen to breathe.

People with, or at risk for, COPD should get a flu shot every year, and also talk with their health care provider about the pneumonia vaccine.

More Information

Revised: February 2015