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
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
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 Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT) Pulmonary function tests measure the lungs' capacity to hold air, to move air in and out, and to absorb oxygen. Pulmonary function tests are better at detecting the general type and severity... read more ). 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 Electrocardiography Electrocardiography is a test that measures your heart’s electrical activity. It's quick, painless, and harmless. The results of that test are shown in an electrocardiogram. It looks like a... read more or echocardiography Echocardiography and Other Ultrasound Procedures Echocardiography can be used to detect abnormalities in heart wall motion and to measure the volume of blood being pumped from the heart with each beat. This procedure can also detect abnormalities... read more 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 Oxygen Therapy Oxygen is a gas that makes up about 21% of the air we breathe. The lungs take oxygen from the air and transfer it to the bloodstream (see Exchanging Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide). Oxygen is needed... read more 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 Overview of Pulmonary Rehabilitation Pulmonary rehabilitation is the use of exercise, education, and behavioral intervention to improve how people with chronic lung disease function in daily life and to enhance their quality of... read more 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
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) Overview of Immunization Immunization enables the body to better defend itself against diseases caused by certain bacteria or viruses. Immunity (the ability of the body to defend itself against diseases caused by certain... read more
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
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 Advance Directives Health care advance directives are legal documents that communicate a person’s wishes about health care decisions in the event the person becomes incapable of making health care decisions. There... read more .