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COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) (cont.)

Symptoms

When you have COPD:

  • You have a cough that won't go away.
  • You often cough up mucus.
  • You are often short of breath, especially when you exercise.
  • You may feel tightness in your chest.

COPD exacerbation

Many people with COPD have attacks called flare-ups or exacerbations (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shuns"). This is when your usual symptoms quickly get worse and stay worse. A COPD flare-up can be dangerous, and you may have to go to the hospital.

Symptoms include:

  • Coughing up more mucus than usual.
  • A change in the color or thickness of that mucus.
  • More shortness of breath than usual.
  • Greater tightness in your chest.

These attacks are most often caused by infections—such as acute bronchitis and pneumonia—and air pollution.

Work with your doctor to make a plan for dealing with a COPD flare-up. If you are prepared, you may be able to get it under control. Try not to panic if you start to have a flare-up. Quick treatment at home may help you manage serious breathing problems.

What Increases Your Risk

Tobacco smoking

Tobacco smoking is the most important risk factor for COPD. Compared to smoking, other risks are minor.

  • Some studies show that up to half of long-term smokers older than age 60 get COPD.3
  • Pipe and cigar smokers have less risk of getting COPD than cigarette smokers. But they still have more risk than nonsmokers.
  • Smoking both tobacco and marijuana increases the risk of COPD more than smoking either one.1
  • The risk for COPD increases with both the amount of tobacco you smoke each day and the number of years you have smoked.

To learn more, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Other risks

Family history

Some people may be more at risk than others for getting the disease, especially if they have low levels of the protein alpha-1 antitrypsin (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency), a disorder that runs in families.

Preterm birth

Preterm babies usually need to have long-term oxygen therapy because their lungs are not fully developed. This therapy can cause lung damage (neonatal chronic lung disease) that can increase the risk for COPD later in life.

Asthma

Asthma and COPD are different diseases, even though both of them involve breathing problems. People with asthma may have a greater risk for getting COPD, but the reasons for this are not fully understood.

Risks in the environment
  • Outside air pollution. Air pollution may make COPD worse. It may increase the risk of a flare-up, or COPD exacerbation, when your symptoms quickly get worse and stay worse. Try not to be outside when air pollution levels are high.
  • Indoor air pollution. Have good ventilation in your home to avoid indoor air pollution.
  • Secondhand smoke. It is not yet known whether secondhand smoke can lead to COPD. But a large study showed that children who were exposed to secondhand smoke were more likely to get emphysema than children who weren't exposed.4 And people who are exposed to secondhand smoke for a long time are more likely to have breathing problems and respiratory diseases.
  • Occupational hazards. If your work exposes you to chemical fumes or dust, use safety equipment to reduce the amount of fumes and dust you breathe.
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