What is COPD?

March 2, 2017

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that makes it hard to breathe. Although there is no cure, treatment can improve quality of life.iStock-620402312.jpg

What's in a name?

To understand COPD, it may help to break down its name.

Chronic means long-lasting. COPD is progressive—it gets worse over time.

Obstructive refers to the fact that airflow is obstructed—air can't move freely in and out of the lungs. Obstruction may be from chronic bronchitis (swelling and excess phlegm in the airways), emphysema (damage to lung tissue), or both.

Pulmonary disease means disease of the lungs. Pulmo is Latin for lung.

Fighting for air

COPD can be life-threatening—it's a leading cause of death in the United States.

Signs and symptoms of the disease include:


  • Shortness of breath—especially during physical activity.
  • A cough that doesn't go away or that produces a lot of mucus.
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaking sound when breathing).
  • Frequent colds.


Early on, COPD may not cause symptoms.

Breathe better

As many as 8 out of 10 cases of COPD are caused by smoking. Other risk factors include genetics and exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants.

For smokers, the most important treatment is to quit smoking.

Other treatments include:


  • Exercise to help the body use oxygen more efficiently.
  • Medicines, such as bronchodilators and steroids.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, a program that may include exercise training and nutritional and psychological counseling.
  • Supplemental oxygen.


In some cases, surgery or lung transplantation may be necessary.

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