COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
COPD is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is caused by damage to the lungs over many years, usually from smoking.
COPD is often a mix of two diseases:
COPD gets worse over time. You can't undo the damage to your lungs. But you can take steps to prevent more damage and to feel better.
What causes COPD?
COPD is almost always caused by smoking. Over time, breathing tobacco smoke irritates the airways and destroys the stretchy fibers in the lungs.
Other things that may put you at risk include breathing chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution over a long period of time. Secondhand smoke also may damage the lungs.
It usually takes many years for the lung damage to start causing symptoms, so COPD is most common in people who are older than 60.
You may be more likely to get COPD if you had a lot of serious lung infections when you were a child. People who get emphysema in their 30s or 40s may have a disorder that runs in families, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. But this is rare.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms are:
As COPD gets worse, you may be short of breath even when you do simple things like get dressed or fix a meal. It gets harder to eat or exercise, and breathing takes much more energy. People often lose weight and get weaker.
At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is called a COPD exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). An exacerbation can range from mild to life-threatening. The longer you have COPD, the more severe these flare-ups will be.
How is COPD diagnosed?
To find out if you have COPD, a doctor will:
If there is a chance you could have COPD, it is very important to find out as soon as you can. This gives you time to take steps to slow the damage to your lungs.
How is it treated?
The best way to slow COPD is to quit smoking. This is the most important thing you can do. It is never too late to quit. No matter how long you have smoked or how serious your COPD is, quitting smoking can help stop the damage to your lungs.
It's hard to quit smoking. Talk to your doctor about treatments that can help. You will double your chances of quitting even if medicine is the only treatment you use to quit, but your odds get even better when you combine medicine and other quit strategies, such as counseling.1 To learn more about how to quit, go to www.smokefree.gov, or call 1-800-QUITNOW (1-800-784-8669).
Your doctor can prescribe treatments that may help you manage your symptoms and feel better.
People who have COPD are more likely to get lung infections, so you will need to get a flu vaccine every year. You should also get a pneumococcal shot. It may not keep you from getting pneumonia. But if you do get pneumonia, you probably will not be as sick.
There are many things you can do at home to stay as healthy as you can.
What else should you think about?
Flare-ups: As COPD gets worse, you may have flare-ups when your symptoms quickly get worse and stay worse. It is important to know what to do if this happens. Your doctor may give you an action plan and medicines to help you breathe if you have a flare-up. But if the attack is severe, you may need to go to the emergency room or call
Depression and anxiety: Knowing that you have a disease that gets worse over time can be hard. It's common to feel sad or hopeless sometimes. Having trouble breathing can also make you feel very anxious. If these feelings last, be sure to tell your doctor. Counseling, medicine, and support groups can help you cope.
End-of-life issues: Be sure to talk to your doctor about what kinds of treatment you want if your breathing problems become life-threatening. You may want to write a living will. You can also choose a health care agent to make decisions in case you are not able to. It can be comforting to know that you will get the type of care you want.
eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise
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