Copd Smoking

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive lung disease that affects over sixteen million Americans, or eleven percent of the nation’s population. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, with approximately 120,000 COPD deaths reported annually.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease usually occurs after age forty, and is mainly a disease found among smokers or former smokers. COPD is especially prevalent in long-term cigarette smokers.

As COPD progresses, the lungs’ airways become less elastic and excess mucus accumulates. The lungs can inhale air, but the airways collapse when air is expelled, trapping stale, or “dead,” air in the lungs. As COPD progresses lung function gradually deteriorates, making it difficult to breathe.

Lung Disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD is actually the end stage of other forms of lung disease. Of these diseases, chronic bronchitis and emphysema are by far the most common causes of COPD. Either lung disease can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but the majority of COPD patients suffer from both types of lung disease.

These two different types of lung disease impair lung capacity in different ways. Emphysema destroys lung tissue, while chronic bronchitis is characterized by excessive mucus production and lung tissue scarring.

COPD and Asthma

Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have similar symptoms and characteristics. Like COPD, asthma is an obstructive lung disease, and the two can be difficult to distinguish. More information on the differences between asthma and COPD can be found on the About Asthma.

Symptoms of COPD

As chronic obstructive pulmonary disease degrades lung function, a number of symptoms may develop. Dyspnea, or shortness of breath, worsens as the disease progresses. A persistent wet cough develops, moving large amounts of sputum. In some cases, COPD is accompanied by wheezing.

Cigarette Smoking and Other Risk Factors

Cigarette smoking causes 85 percent of COPD cases, and smokers are ten times as likely to develop COPD as nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking irritates the airways, and mucus production increases in response to cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoking also damages the cilia, the hair-like structures that remove debris from the lungs.

Long-term smokers have difficulty breathing and are more prone to lung disease. Smokers may experience chest tightness as a symptom of cigarette-caused lung damage.

Exposure to environmental or toxic pollutants may also cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. However, the number of COPD cases attributed to external pollutants is small when compared with cases caused by cigarette smoking.

COPD may also be caused by a genetic condition: alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This condition is commonly associated with emphysema. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a glycoprotein found in body fluids that fights inflammation. Deficient levels result in damage to the alveoli (the air sacs in the lungs).


American Lung Association. (2001). Breathless in America: Background on COPD. Retrieved November 19, 2003, from

Cleveland Clinic Health System. (reviewed 2001). Understanding COPD. Retrieved November 17, 2003, from

U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. (2002). Chronic pulmonary obstructive disease. Retrieved November 17, 2003, from