Reduce your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, often find it difficult to breathe while doing everyday activities. The condition can make it feel like you’re running out of air even when you take a deep breath, and you may have a cough that won’t go away. Early detection of COPD can change its progress, so be sure to see your doctor if you have signs of this chronic lung disease.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a medical condition that damages the lungs in ways that make it hard to breathe. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two common conditions that contribute to COPD.

Emphysema is a disease that develops over time and involves the gradual damage of lung tissue and destruction of tiny air sacs in the lungs.

Chronic bronchitis is a condition where the airways in the lungs become inflamed. The irritation can cause a severe cough that brings up mucus. Wheezing, chest pain, and shortness of breath are other signs of bronchitis.

How COPD affects your lungs

When you breathe, air travels into your lungs through two tubes called bronchi. In your lungs, the tubes divide into many smaller tubes that end in clusters of tiny air sacs called alveoli.

The air sacs have very thin walls full of tiny blood vessels. The oxygen in the air you inhale passes into these blood vessels and enters your bloodstream. As you breathe out, you exhale carbon dioxide.

The tubes and air sacs of your lungs are naturally elastic, which helps force air out of your body. COPD causes your lungs to become less elastic, making it difficult to exhale.

Symptoms of COPD

Breathing can be difficult for the 16 million Americans who have COPD. Millions more suffer from COPD but have not been diagnosed with the condition.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Trouble taking a deep breath
  • Shortness of breath
  • A cough that won’t go away
  • Wheezing
  • Excess phlegm or mucus
  • Chest tightness
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy

If you can’t catch your breath or if you experience severe blueness of your lips or fingernails, call 911 and seek medical care immediately.

Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of COPD

Long-term exposure to tobacco smoke is the main cause of COPD in the United States. Cigar and pipe smoke, cannabis smoke, second-hand smoke, air pollution, and workplace exposure to dust or fumes can also cause COPD. For some who develop the condition, genetic factors and respiratory infections may play a role.

In addition to affecting current and former smokers, the disease is more common in women than in men and in people with a history of asthma.

Left untreated, COPD is a progressive disease that gets worse over time and can cause many complications, including heart disease, lung cancer, high blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension), and a variety of other medical conditions.

What you can do to prevent COPD

Most cases of COPD are related to cigarette smoking. The longer you smoke—and the more you smoke—the greater your risk. If you’re a smoker, the best way to prevent COPD is to stop smoking.

When you’re trying to quit, the urge to use tobacco is powerful. Enrolling in a tobacco cessation program can help you quit for good and reduce the damage smoking has caused to your lungs. To increase your chances of kicking the habit for good, here are 5 ways to resist tobacco cravings.

If you work with chemical fumes, dust, or other lung irritants, use respiratory protective equipment.

Lung infections can cause serious problems in people at risk of developing COPD, so be sure to get an annual flu shot and regular pneumococcal pneumonia vaccines.

Treatment options for COPD

People with COPD experience a variety of symptoms, so treatment differs from person to person. Treatment tends to be more effective the earlier the disease is diagnosed and when it’s less advanced, so it’s important to talk to your doctor as soon as you experience symptoms of the disease.

Doctors use a simple test, called spirometry, to measure lung function and detect COPD in anyone with breathing problems.

Many people with COPD are able to maintain a good quality of life. The American Lung Association provides information and resources for those living with COPD.

Learn more about COPD

Mayo Clinic, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

CDC, Basics about COPD