Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a lung disease that can affect a person’s ability to breathe. There are two main forms of COPD, and people often have both at the same time:
- Chronic bronchitis, or inflammation in the bronchi of the lungs, that causes an increase in coughing and mucus
- Emphysema, or damage to the air sacs (tiny breathing tubes) in the lungs
Symptoms, including daily coughing and breathlessness during physical activity, often start out mild but typically worsen over time. In an advanced stage, COPD can be life-threatening.
COPD: What you should know
- Although they have symptoms in common, like coughing and difficulty breahting (dyspnea), COPD is not the same as asthma. It's vital to get an accurate diagnosis, because COPD and asthma require different treatments.
- Cigarette smoking is by far the leading cause of COPD, accounting for around 75 percent of all cases in the U.S. If you have COPD and continue to smoke, the disease will progress faster than if you quit smoking.
You are also at increased risk if you have a family history of COPD or if you have had long-term exposure to any of the following:
- Certain chemicals, gas fumes or dusts (such as coal dust) in the workplace
- Secondhand smoke
- Indoor or outdoor pollution
How can I get help for COPD?
The early symptoms of COPD are usually mild and are often mistaken as symptoms of other conditions, including asthma and lung cancer. These include the following:
- Coughing every day over a period of months. Smokers often refer to this as "smoker's cough."
- Coughing up mucus
- Trouble catching your breath or breathlessness (dyspnea)
- Shortness of breath during mild physical activity, such as walking up stairs
- Wheezing or rattling sounds when you breathe
- Frequent colds or flu
If you are experiencing these symptoms, see your doctor or a pulmonologist. He or she will take your medical history, do a physical exam and, if necessary, perform tests to figure out whether you have COPD. Testing can include the following:
- Pulmonary function tests (spirometry), which are the best way to diagnose COPD
- Tests that measure the lungs' ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide
- Imaging tests, such as chest X-rays and CT scans