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COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) FAQs

Reviewed by Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

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Q:COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the same as adult-onset asthma. True or False?

A:False. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is comprised primarily of three related conditions: 1) chronic bronchitis, 2) chronic asthma, and 3) emphysema. With each of these three conditions there is a chronic obstruction of air flow through the airways and out of the lungs. The obstruction generally is permanent and may progress over time.

Patients with COPD are often classified by the symptoms they are experiencing at the time of an increase of the symptoms of the disease. For example, if a patient is experiencing primarily shortness of breath, they may be referred to as a patient with emphysema. If the patient is primarily experiencing a cough and mucus production, he or she is referred to as having chronic bronchitis. Actually, it is preferable to refer to these patients as having COPD, since they can experience a variety of lung symptoms.

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Q:COPD is almost always caused by what?

A:Smoking. In the United States, tobacco use, especially smoking, is a key factor in the development and progression of COPD, but asthma, exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic factors, and respiratory infections also play a role in the development of COPD. In less developed parts of the world, indoor air quality is thought to play a larger role in the development and progression of COPD than it does in the United States.

In rare cases, COPD may be caused by alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is an inherited disorder that can cause lung disease in adults and liver disease in adults and children.

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Q:Out of 100 smokers, how many will likely develop COPD?

A:15. Out of 100 smokers, about 15 of them will develop COPD. Cigarette smoking and tobacco use account for as much as 90% of the risk for the development of COPD.

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Q:How long does it take smokers to experience symptoms of COPD?

A:People usually experience COPD symptoms after smoking for more than 20 years. Most people with COPD have smoked at least 10 to 20 cigarettes per day for 20 or more years before experiencing any symptoms. Thus, COPD is typically not diagnosed until the fifth decade of life (in people aged 40 to 49 years).

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Q:Medically speaking, breathlessness or being short of breath is called what?

A:Medically speaking, breathlessness or shortness of breath is called dyspnea.

Dyspnea also refers to difficult or labored breathing. Dyspnea is a sign of serious disease of the airway, lungs, or heart, and is the most significant symptom of COPD. It does not usually occur until the sixth decade of life (in people aged 50 to 59 years). The onset of shortness of breath should not be ignored. If you or someone you know experience these symptoms, see a health care professional.

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Q:Cyanosis is also a symptom of COPD. True or False?

A:True. In addition to shortness of breath, cyanosis is also a symptom of COPD. Cyanosis refers to a condition where the skin begins to look bluish in color due to insufficient oxygen in the blood. In addition to dyspnea (breathlessness) and cyanosis, other symptoms of COPD are wheezing, chronic cough, and frequent respiratory infections.

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Q:How many American adults have COPD?

A:About 12 million American adults are estimated to have COPD, and about 120,000 die from it every year.

Many more people are believed to have COPD that is undiagnosed. Estimates range as high as 12 million undiagnosed individuals.

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Q:Is it possible to have both asthma and COPD?

A:Yes. It is possible to have both COPD and asthma, and the diseases share several characteristics. Many people with COPD also suffer from asthma, but most people with asthma do not have COPD.

One difference between the two is that asthma sufferers can be nearly free of symptoms between increases of severity of asthma symptoms with proper treatment. Moreover, the symptoms of asthma (such as wheezing, shortness of breath, cough) are usually caused by obvious triggers, such as allergens, cold air, or exercise. The onset of asthma generally occurs in younger non-smokers, while COPD is more often linked to older age and smoking. Airway obstruction with asthma is typically reversible, while people with COPD develop permanent lung damage that progresses over time.

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Q:People with COPD burn more calories. True or False?

A:True. People with COPD burn more calories.

People with COPD may burn up to 10 times more calories than people without COPD. Moreover, in people with COPD who are overweight, the heart and lungs have to work even harder to breathe properly. Underweight people with COPD are more susceptible to complications from other illnesses. Maintaining proper weight and achieving proper nutrition are important factors in coping with COPD.

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Q:Medical treatments for COPD can include?

A:Pulmonary rehabilitation, medications and oxygen therapy. There is no cure for COPD, but there are effective treatments and lifestyle changes that can improve the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

Pulmonary rehabilitation involves exercise, education about nutritional needs, and sometimes psychological counseling. A health care professional also may prescribe inhaler medicines that relax the airways and helps make breathing easier. If a person has severe COPD, he or she may require the use of supplemental oxygen.

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Q:People with COPD should get a flu vaccine every year. True or False?

A:True. Because the flu can cause serious problems, people with COPD should get flu shots every year. People with COPD are also at greater risk for pneumococcal disease, including pneumonia. People with COPD should talk to a health care professional about getting the pneumococcal "pneumonia" vaccine.

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