Home > Diseases and Conditions > Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • We are sorry, but NCBI web applications do not support your browser and may not function properly. More information
What is COPD? What are the signs of COPD? What is the difference between COPD and asthma? What are exacerbations? How does the disease progress? What is life with COPD like? Is it normal to be anxious? What are the treatment options? Can emergency plans help in exacerbations? Is there support for care?

PubMed Health. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

COPD; Chronic obstructive airways disease; Chronic obstructive lung disease; Chronic bronchitis; Emphysema; Bronchitis - chronic

Last reviewed: May 1, 2011.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the most common lung diseases. It makes it difficult to breathe.

There are two main forms of COPD:

  • Chronic bronchitis, which involves a long-term cough with mucus
  • Emphysema, which involves destruction of the lungs over time

Most people with COPD have a combination of both conditions.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. The more a person smokes, the more likely that person will develop COPD. However, some people smoke for years and never get COPD.

In rare cases, nonsmokers who lack a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin can develop emphysema.

Emphysema

Other risk factors for COPD are:

  • Exposure to certain gases or fumes in the workplace
  • Exposure to heavy amounts of secondhand smoke and pollution
  • Frequent use of cooking fire without proper ventilation

Symptoms

  • Cough, with or without mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Many respiratory infections
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) that gets worse with mild activity
  • Trouble catching one's breath
  • Wheezing

Because the symptoms of COPD develop slowly, some people may not know that they are sick.

Signs and tests

The best test for COPD is a lung function test called spirometry. This involves blowing out as hard as possible into a small machine that tests lung capacity. The results can be checked right away, and the test does not involve exercising, drawing blood, or exposure to radiation.

Spirometry

Using a stethoscope to listen to the lungs can also be helpful. However, sometimes the lungs sound normal even when COPD is present.

Pictures of the lungs (such as x-rays and CT scans) can be helpful, but sometimes look normal even when a person has COPD (especially chest x-ray).

Sometimes patients need to have a blood test (called arterial blood gas) to measure the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

Treatment

There is no cure for COPD. However, there are many things you can do to relieve symptoms and keep the disease from getting worse.

Persons with COPD MUST stop smoking. This is the best way to slow down the lung damage.

Medications used to treat COPD include:

In severe cases or during flare-ups, you may need to receive:

  • Steroids by mouth or through a vein (intravenously)
  • Bronchodilators through a nebulizer
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Assistance during breathing from a machine (through a mask, BiPAP, or endotracheal tube)

Antibiotics are prescribed during symptom flare-ups, because infections can make COPD worse.

You may need oxygen therapy at home if you have a low level of oxygen in your blood.

Pulmonary rehabilitation does not cure the lung disease, but it can teach you to breathe in a different way so you can stay active. Exercise can help maintain muscle strength in the legs.

Walk to build up strength.

  • Ask the doctor or therapist how far to walk.
  • Slowly increase how far you walk.
  • Try not to talk when you walk if you get short of breath.
  • Use pursed lip breathing when breathing out (to empty your lungs before the next breath)

Things you can do to make it easier for yourself around the home include:

  • Avoiding very cold air
  • Making sure no one smokes in your home
  • Reducing air pollution by getting rid of fireplace smoke and other irritants

Eat a healthy diet with fish, poultry, or lean meat, as well as fruits and vegetables. If it is hard to keep your weight up, talk to a doctor or dietitian about eating foods with more calories.

Surgery may be used, but only a few patients benefit from these surgical treatments:

  • Surgery to remove parts of the diseased lung can help other areas (not as diseased) work better in some patients with emphysema
  • Lung transplant for severe cases

Support Groups

People often can help ease the stress of illness by joining a support group in which members share common experiences and problems.

See also: Lung disease - support group

Expectations (prognosis)

COPD is a long-term (chronic) illness. The disease will get worse more quickly if you do not stop smoking.

Patients with severe COPD will be short of breath with most activities and will be admitted to the hospital more often. These patients should talk with their doctor about breathing machines and end-of-life care.

Complications

Calling your health care provider

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have a rapid increase in shortness of breath.

Prevention

Not smoking prevents most COPD. Ask your doctor or health care provider about quit-smoking programs. Medicines are also available to help kick the smoking habit. The medicines are most effective if you are motivated to quit.

References

  1. Hoogendoorn M, Feenstra TL, Hoogenveen RT, Rutten-van Mölken MP. Long-term effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of smoking cessation interventions in patients with COPD. Thorax. 2010;65(8):711-718. [PubMed: 20685746]
  2. Agarwal R, Aggarwal AN, Gupta D, Jindal SK. Inhaled corticosteroids vs placebo for preventing COPD exacerbations: a systematic review and metaregression of randomized controlled trials. Chest. 2010; 137(2):318-325. [PMC free article: PMC78749] [PubMed: 19783669]
  3. Shapiro SD, Reilly JJ Jr., Rennard SI. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al. Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 39.

Review Date: 5/1/2011.

Reviewed by: Denis Hadjiliadis MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Which long‐acting inhaled drugs, used alone or in combination, are the most effective for people with COPD?
    Inhaled drugs for COPD have been shown to relieve symptoms, improve quality of life and prevent or treat flare‐ups. Treatment with these inhaled drugs tends to begin with one inhaler, and additional therapies are introduced as necessary. For persistent or worsening symptoms, long‐acting inhaled drugs taken once or twice daily are preferred over short‐acting ones. Several Cochrane reviews have looked at the risks and benefits of specific long‐acting inhaled therapies compared with placebo or other treatments. However for patients and clinicians, it is important to understand the benefits of these treatments relative to each other, and whether a particular type of inhaled therapy is more beneficial than the others.
See all (92) ...

Figures

  • Emphysema.
    Spirometry.

PubMed Health Blog...

read all...

MedlinePlus.gov links to free, reliable, up-to-date health information from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other trusted health organizations.

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...