Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Image

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a progressive lung disease that affects over 16 million Americans. According to the National Lung Health Education Program, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, causing approximately 120,000 deaths per year.

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

COPD actually refers to a combination of lung conditions that make it difficult to breathe. Most often, COPD is caused by a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but other conditions–such as chronic asthmatic bronchitis–can also play a part in the development of the disease.

As COPD progresses, the lungs’ airways and alveoli become less elastic and accumulate excess mucus. Although the lungs can inhale air, the airways collapse when air is expelled, trapping stale, or “dead,” air in the lungs. Stale air lacks sufficient oxygen. This can lead to:

  • Asthmatic wheezing
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Persistent wet cough.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Risk Factors

Since COPD is actually the end stage of other forms of lung disease, the most prominent risk factor is a history of chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema. Other risk factors include:

  • Age (those over the age of 40 are at increased risk)
  • Genetics (some people are predisposed to COPD)
  • Exposure to dust and certain chemicals
  • Long-term history of smoking (or exposure to tobacco smoke).

Complications of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Aside from causing difficulty breathing, COPD causes decreased oxygen levels in a patient’s blood. This can cause a host of complications, including:

  • Depression
  • Heart problems
  • Hypertension
  • Lung cancer
  • Respiratory infections.

Chronic bronchitis sufferers are often at risk for pneumonia, asthma, and other lung diseases. Long-term symptoms also increase the risk of heart disease.

How Does COPD Differ from Asthma?

Because of their similar symptoms, COPD and asthma are often confused. The main difference between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma is the cause–COPD is usually caused by a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

You’ll want to confirm a diagnosis before beginning treatment for either COPD or asthma.

Diagnosing of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

In order to diagnose COPD, your doctor will ask you about your family’s medical history and your general health. She’ll also ask about your lifestyle, including whether you smoke or are frequently exposed to certain chemicals.

In addition to asking these questions, your doctor will also perform tests to determine whether or not you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Some of the tests that she may perform include a:

  • Bronchodilator reversibility test
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Spirometry test.

COPD Treatment Options

The type of treatment you receive for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will depend mainly on the lung disease’s type and severity, as well as its impact on your daily life.

COPD treatments range from physical therapy, home oxygen therapy, breathing exercises and medication to the controversial bullectomy and lung volume reduction surgery. The most effective treatment is smoking cessation. Understanding all available options can help you discuss your COPD treatment plan with your doctor.


National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Staff. (2007). How is COPD diagnosed? Retrieved August 28, 2007, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site:

National Lung Health Education Program Staff. (2009). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from the National Lung Health Education Program Web site:

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010). COPD. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic Web Site:

Merck Staff. (2007). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from the Merck Web site:

Supplement News Staff. (2009). Bronchitis chronic. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from the Supplement News Web site: