COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a condition caused by damage to the airways or other parts of the lung that blocks airflow and makes it hard to breathe.

COPD Basics (3:52)
Learn who is at risk for COPD, what symptoms to watch for, and how the disease affects the lungs. 

COPD can cause coughing that produces large amounts of a slimy substance called mucus. It can also cause breathing problems, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms. Because COPD is a progressive disease, its symptoms often develop slowly but worsen over time and can limit your ability to do routine activities. Serious COPD may prevent you from doing even basic activities such as walking, cooking, or taking care of yourself.

In the United States, the term COPD refers to two main conditions.

  • Emphysema develops when there is damage to the walls between many of the air sacs in the lungs. Normally, these sacs are elastic or stretchy. When you breathe in, each air sac fills up with air, like a small balloon. When you breathe out, the air sacs deflate, and the air goes out. In emphysema, it is harder for your lungs to move air out of your body.
  • Chronic (long-term) bronchitis is caused by repeated or constant irritation and inflammation in the lining of the airways. Lots of thick mucus forms in the airways, making it hard to breathe.

Most people who have COPD have a mixture of both emphysema and chronic bronchitis in different proportions, and how serious each condition is varies from person to person.

In the United States, COPD affects nearly 16 million adults, and many more do not know they have it. More than half of those diagnosed are women. COPD is a major cause of disability, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The good news is that COPD can often be prevented, mainly by not smoking. In the United States and other high-income countries, cigarette smoking is a leading cause of COPD where the majority of people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. In the developing world, however, air pollution plays a much larger role, and half of all cases worldwide are not related to tobacco. A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency can also cause the disease.

Although there is no cure, treatments and lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease. You may also need oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, or medicines to treat complications.

copd lung

A Quick Guide on COPD

This guide provides an overview of COPD and its symptoms.

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