Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, is a lung disease that makes it difficult for your body to get the oxygen it needs.

The two main forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In chronic bronchitis, the main airways in the lungs become swollen and may be clogged with mucus. In emphysema, air sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli, are destroyed. Both of these conditions make it difficult to breathe.

If you have COPD, it is possible to have symptoms of both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

COPD is a long-term disease that progresses slowly, but lung function is lost over time. If you have stable COPD, your symptoms will not vary widely from day to day.

COPD exacerbations are things that can cause a sudden worsening of your COPD symptoms. Common exacerbations include lung infections, such as pneumonia and the flu, as well as smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke, and air pollution.

Proper care may help you breathe easier, feel better, and live life to the fullest. Still, COPD is an ongoing disorder that can interfere with your daily life.

Understanding COPD

In healthy lungs, air can pass easily through the airways. Oxygen travels from the alveoli into the blood and is carried throughout the body. When you have COPD, chronic bronchitis can cause your airways to become chronically inflamed and blocked. Your lungs may lose their elasticity or your alveoli may not function well due to emphysema. Either condition will make you work harder to breathe in and out. When you do not breathe out enough air, there is less space for fresh air when you breathe in again, and less oxygen enters your blood.

Over time, your lungs may become enlarged. This makes it even more difficult for you to breathe.

Signs and Symptoms of COPD

COPD can progress for years without obvious symptoms. The first symptom you notice may be shortness of breath. With COPD, even simple tasks can make it hard for you to breath.

You may also find that you are less active and have less energy than you used to.

Risk Factors

Most people get COPD from smoking. Cigarette smoke causes damage to your lungs, which may lead to COPD over time. If you have COPD, you must stop smoking. Continuing to smoke will make your symptoms worse.

Chronic asthma can also lead to COPD, if left untreated.


To diagnose COPD, your healthcare provider will need to perform a medical evaluation and a physical exam. You may also be asked to take some tests, including blood tests, a chest x-ray, and a breathing test.


Treatment for COPD is based on your symptoms and the underlying cause of your COPD.


Medications do not cure COPD, but they can help keep it under control. Quick-relief, or rescue, medications help relieve coughing or wheezing symptoms when you have them. Rescue medications are designed to be short-acting, and remain in your system for only a short period of time. Quick-relief beta agonists are taken using an inhaler, while oral steroids may be taken as pills, capsules, or liquids.

Other medications, known as control drugs, must be taken each day to reduce or prevent COPD symptoms. Control drugs are usually taken using an inhaler, and may include anticholinergics or beta agonists to reduce swelling of the airways, or inhaled corticosteroids to reduce lung inflammation. It may take a month or longer for control drugs to help you feel better.

Because infections can make your COPD much worse, your doctor is likely to prescribe antibiotics when your symptoms flare up. If you are prescribed antibiotics, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions and take the full course of antibiotics. Do not stop taking the antibiotics just because you feel better.


If you do not have enough oxygen in your blood due to advanced COPD, your healthcare provider is likely to prescribe oxygen therapy. You may need to use oxygen all the time, or you may need oxygen only during certain activities, such as exercise or sleep.


For serious cases of COPD, surgery may be appropriate. Your healthcare provider will discuss options for surgery if it is right for you.

What to Do Prevent COPD from Progressing

The best way to keep COPD from getting worse is to quit smoking. No matter what shape your lungs are in, stopping now will make a difference! Quitting smoking could be the most important thing you do for your health.

You should also avoid things that irritate your lungs, like:

  • Secondhand smoke

  • Dust

  • Strong odors

  • Cold air

  • Pollen or other allergens

Protect yourself from colds and other types of infections, which can make your COPD symptoms worse. Follow your healthcare provider's recommendations for a yearly flu shot and a pneumonia shot, if needed.

Cope with Shortness of Breath

Your healthcare provider can teach you ways to cope with shortness of breath to help you be more active. Your healthcare provider may teach you to:

  • Start exercising.

  • Learn the best way to breathe.

  • Use energy wisely.

  • Stay calm.

Take Care of Yourself

Eating well and maintaining a healthy weight can give you more energy. It is important to take care of your emotional health, as well as your physical health. Make time for the things you enjoy. Stay involved with family and friends, and stay intimate with your partner. Taking an active role in your treatment can also help your emotional health.

When to Call Your Healthcare Provider

In some cases, exercising may make your symptoms worse. If this happens, stop exercising right away. Contact your healthcare provider or call nine-one-one if you feel any of these symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Burning, tightness, heaviness, or pressure in your chest

  • Unusual aching in your arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, or back

  • Trouble catching your breath

  • A racing or skipping heart Extreme tiredness (especially after exercise)

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or nausea

What We Have Learned

 An early sign of COPD is abnormal shortness of breath.
True or False.
The answer is True.

The best way to keep COPD from getting worse is to quit smoking.
True or False.
The answer is True.

Treatment for COPD may include medication, oxygen, healthy eating, and exercise.
True or False.
The answer is True.