Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that affects millions of people each year. Chronic" means long term, "obstructive" means there is a blockage to air flow, and "pulmonary" refers to the lungs. COPD is used to describe a class of diseases characterized by relatively irreversible limitations of airflow in the lungs. The most familiar disease in this group is emphysema and chronic bronchitis. A person with COPD may have either emphysema or chronic bronchitis, but many have both. Some people with COPD may also have "asthma-like" symptoms, such as wheezing.

In emphysema there is damage to the walls of the air sacs or alveoli in the lungs.  This results in a smaller total number of air sacs.  Fewer air sacs means that the lungs are not able to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream as well.  Also the lungs may not be able to get rid of carbon dioxide as well.  The damaged lungs loose their stretchiness or elasticity.

In chronic bronchitis there is a long lasting cough and mucus production.  The airways in the lungs become swollen and produce more mucus.

While COPD affects different people in different ways, its main symptoms include shortness of breath (dyspnea) with activity and chronic coughing. In more than 95 percent of those with COPD in the United States, the disease has been caused by cigarette smoking.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affects between 15 million and 30 million Americans and is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. The annual direct and indirect medical costs related to COPD now exceed $30 billion. Its prevalence is declining in men, many of whom quit smoking over the past several decades. Its prevalence is increasing in women, reflecting the fact that more women began to smoke at about the same time many men began to quit. The lag time between when a person began to smoke and the development of COPD is 10 or more years.

There is no cure for COPD, but what was once deemed to be a disease with a hopeless prognosis is now known to be very treatable. Early diagnosis and treatment can enable people with COPD to take charge of their breathing and regain control of their lives. Common treatment goals include becoming more active, decreasing shortness of breath, a lowering of anxiety and depression, and an improved quality of life.


Quit Smoking 

Even if you have COPD, symptoms are milder and chances of living longer are improved if you quit smoking. It is never too late to quit smoking if you have COPD or are at risk for developing COPD because of a smoking habit.  

As more people quit smoking, fewer will develop COPD and its prevalence will continue to decline.


Alpha-1 Antitrypsin

A person who doesn't have enough alpha-1 antitrypsin, a major protein in the blood, might have Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, sometimes called Alpha-1. When Alpha-1 affects the lungs, it can cause COPD and is called inherited emphysema. And when it affects the liver, it is called inherited liver disease. Learn more about alpha-1 antitrypsin.


National Jewish Health experts provided information on this topic for use on the U.S. News & World Report website.

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