Not Found
Locations

Find information on medical topics, symptoms, drugs, procedures, news and more, written in everyday language.

Quick Facts

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

(Chronic Bronchitis; Emphysema)

By The Manual's Editorial Staff, ,

What is COPD?

COPD is a disease in your lungs that makes it hard to breathe. It's hard to push air out of your lungs. Difficulty pushing air out is called chronic airflow obstruction.

  • Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause of COPD

  • COPD makes you cough and be short of breath

  • Stopping smoking can help keep your airways open

  • Your doctor may give you medicines to help avoid or relieve your symptoms

  • If you have severe COPD, you may need to take other medicines, use oxygen, or undergo pulmonary (lung) rehabilitation

COPD includes 2 lung disorders—chronic obstructive bronchitis and emphysema. Many people have both disorders.

  • Chronic obstructive bronchitis is a cough that brings up thick fluid (sputum—mucus from your lungs) and lasts for 2 years or more, combined with airflow blockage and breathing problems

  • Emphysema is damage to the air sacs in your lungs

What causes COPD?

Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause of COPD. Other common causes are:

  • Smoking cigars or pipe tobacco

  • Breathing in chemical fumes, dust, pollution, or heavy smoke

  • A genetic tendency (that is, you have a family history of COPD)

What are the symptoms of COPD?

COPD takes years to develop and get worse.

In your 40s or 50s, you may have:

  • A mild cough that brings up clear sputum (mucus from your lungs), usually in the morning

  • Shortness of breath when you exercise or move around

In your 60s, you may have:

  • More trouble breathing, especially if you smoke

  • Pneumonia and other lung infections that may require hospital stays

  • Weight loss

  • Morning headaches

  • Sometimes swelling of your legs

  • Sometimes coughing up blood

After you've had COPD for a long time, you may notice:

  • Your chest is bigger because air is trapped in your lungs

  • Your skin has a blue tint because the oxygen in your blood is low

  • You're short of breath even when you're not doing anything

Symptoms of COPD flare- ups

A flare-up of COPD is a sudden worsening of your symptoms. Flare-ups can happen at any age. They're usually caused by breathing in pollution or pollen in the air. They're also caused by getting a cold, flu, or other sickness that affects your breathing. See your doctor right away if you have these symptoms:

  • Cough that may produce more yellow or green sputum

  • Shortness of breath even when you're resting

  • Sometimes fever or body aches

A serious flare-up can lead to a dangerously low level of oxygen in your blood (a condition called acute respiratory failure). Go to an emergency room right away if you have these symptoms:

  • Severe shortness of breath (feeling like you're drowning)

  • Anxiety or confusion

  • Sweating

  • Bluish skin caused by low oxygen in your blood

How can doctors tell if I have COPD?

Doctors will usually suspect COPD based on your symptoms. They'll do a chest x-ray and tests to find out how well your lungs are working (pulmonary function tests). Doctors may check if the level of oxygen in your blood is low using a sensor placed on a fingertip.

If you're young, have never smoked, and have a family history of COPD, doctors may do other tests to see if your symptoms are caused by a different problem:

  • A blood test to see if COPD runs in your family

  • An ECG/EKG or echocardiography to see if you have any heart problems that are causing your shortness of breath

How do doctors treat COPD?

Doctors can't fix the damage in your lungs and airways.

If you're a smoker, you need to stop smoking to keep COPD from getting worse. Doctors may give you medicines to help you stop, such as nicotine gum or a patch.

Doctors may also give you medicines to increase airflow and make it easier to breathe. Some medicines are used to prevent symptoms. Other medicines are used to relieve symptoms. You take some COPD medicines through an inhaler. This allows you to breathe medicine directly into your lungs.

You may also need oxygen therapy to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood. Oxygen is usually given through prongs worn in your nose.

Doctors may suggest you go to pulmonary rehabilitation to help improve your quality of life.

To treat serious COPD symptoms or flare-ups, you may need to stay in the hospital. If an infection has caused the flare-up, you may need antibiotics.

What can I do if I have COPD?

Change certain behaviors

  • Stop smoking

  • Stay away from irritants in the air such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and pollen

  • Talk to your doctor about getting a flu and pneumonia shot (vaccination)

  • Eat healthy foods every day, especially if you have unexplained weight loss

  • Drink water instead of soda or coffee—this keeps the sputum in your lungs from getting thick

Plan ahead

If your COPD becomes very serious, you'll need help with daily living and medical care. People with advanced COPD have a higher chance of getting sick or dying from heart problems, blocked arteries, or lung problems such as pneumonia or lung cancer. You may need a breathing machine to stay alive.

To prepare yourself, talk with your family members about the type of medical care you want if you're no longer able to make decisions about your own care. Your decisions should be written down in legal documents called advance directives.

Resources In This Article

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

  • Generic Name
    Select Brand Names
  • COMMIT, NICORETTE, NICOTROL