Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, actually covers a range of chronic lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, non reversible asthma, and bronchiectasis (abnormal scarring of the lungs which can lead to airflow obstruction). COPD makes breathing very difficult for people who have the disease. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approximately 12 million adults in the United States are diagnosed with COPD and 120,000 die from the disease each year.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Up to 75% of people who are diagnosed smoke or used to smoke. And, up to 25% of people with the condition never smoked. This may be due to long-term exposure to other lung irritants—such as air pollution, chemical fumes, and work place environmental hazards. A rare genetic condition can also cause the disease.


Advancing age is not a risk factor for COPD but many people are often diagnosed when they are older since it takes several years for the disease to develop. People can start showing mild symptoms in their 40s but may dismiss them.

According to the NIH the signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • An ongoing cough or a cough that produces a lot of mucus–often called a smoker’s cough;
  • Frequent colds or other respiratory infections including the flu;
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity;
  • Wheezing or a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe;
  • Chest tightness.
  • If you have any of these symptoms see you doctor who can determine if they are related to COPD. These can also be due to another lung disease.


If COPD is in an advanced state it can produce serious symptoms which require immediate attention and a trip to the emergency room. These include:

  • Having a hard time catching your breath or talking;
  • Lips or fingernails turn blue or gray which is a sign of a low oxygen level in your blood;
  • People around you notice that you are not mentally alert;
  • Rapid heartbeat;
  • You are currently being treated for COPD but symptoms are getting worse.


Treatment and Management

  • Stop smoking. This is the first step in treating COPD. Unlike years ago, today there are medications available which greatly help people give up cigarettes. This includes Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) such as a patch, gum, and lozenge which can be purchased over-the-counter. There are also perscription medications your health care professional can prescribe including Chantix and Zyban.
  • Lifestyle changes. Often people avoid exercise or any activity which causes their breathing to worsen. However, moderate physical activity can have an overall improvement on COPD symptoms by increasing circulation, strengthening muscles and bones, lowering blood pressure, as well as reducing weight and stress. Talk to your doctor first before starting any exercise program.
  • Medications. Your doctor can prescribe short or long-acting bronchodilators (inhalers) to relax your airway muscles and help make breathing easier. Inhaled steroids, which reduce lung inflammation, can also used in combination with an inhaler for more severe cases.
  • Get your vaccines. It is especially important to get vaccines for the flu and pneumonia since these diseases can cause serious problems in COPD patients.
  • Oxygen Therapy. Short or long-term oxyten therapy can greatly reduce the symptoms of COPD and help make breathing easier.


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