Understanding COPD

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a common but serious lung disease and it can present challenges with breathing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 million Americans report they have been diagnosed with COPD. It is estimated that another 16 million people have symptoms of the disease but have not yet been diagnosed.

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is a group of lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, or both. These conditions block airflow in the lungs and make breathing difficult and continue the dyspnea cycle. For more information, check out our fact sheet.  

  • Emphysema: the walls between air sacs in the lungs are damaged.
  • Chronic bronchitis: constant irritation and inflammation of the lining of the airways, which causes thick mucus to form.

Damaged lungs and mucus buildup make it hard for the lungs to spread oxygen to the rest of the body.

People living with COPD may experience other illnesses. They may have more frequent colds that impact breathing and are more likely to develop lung infections like pneumonia. These infections occur because damaged lungs are not good at getting rid of mucus buildup.

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Other causes include exposure to secondhand smoke (the mix of smoke and chemicals that come from a lit cigarette), indoor air pollution, chemicals and dust at work. A rare inherited disorder, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, is also a cause of COPD.

Is there a cure for COPD?

There is no cure for COPD. However, COPD can be controlled and your life, or the life of the person you care for, can be improved. To do this, you need consistent COPD care and regular communication with a doctor and other healthcare providers.

How do I manage COPD?

With proper treatment and management, many people are able to maintain a good quality of life while living with COPD. There are a variety of ways to help keep your lungs healthy and monitor your COPD symptoms.

It is essential for people living with COPD to monitor themselves. Keeping a list of dates and times when experiencing symptoms, reactions to treatments and exercise and making notes about visits with a health care provider can help people manage COPD more effectively.

Treatment options include medication, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation and surgical interventions for those who are eligible.

For more information, visit the COPD section of our Library.