Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, certain types of bronchiectasis, and sometimes asthma.

Emphysema is usually the direct result of years of smoking cigarettes. It affects people who are middle-aged or elderly. Chronic bronchitis, which can occur earlier in life, can also be caused by smoking.

Healthy lungs filter the air we breathe. Your lungs trap pollutants with a thin layer of mucous coating. Tiny brushes known as cilia sweep away the harmful particles so they can be removed from your lungs. When you cough, dirt and pollutants are brought up with the mucus.

Because smoking destroys the cilia, your lungs can’t work properly — there is no way for the particles to get out. This results in damage to the tiny air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. This occurs among people with emphysema.

Inflammation caused by smoking can lead to chronic bronchitis and damage the breathing tubes and bronchi, even though the alveoli may not be damaged permanently.


Think of the alveoli like tiny balloons. They inflate and deflate when you breathe. But when the alveoli become damaged, they lose their ability to stretch and contract properly. This in turn makes it difficult to breathe. As alveoli become permanently stretched, the lungs will have trouble taking in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. This forces the heart and lungs to work harder and decreases the oxygen available to other organs and tissues, causing further damage.

Not everyone who develops COPD has a history of smoking cigarettes. Being exposed to secondhand smoke over time can have a negative impact on your health. Smoking marijuana may also cause COPD.

People who inhale cooking fumes or have extended exposure to pollutants, such as workplace or environmental hazards, can also develop COPD. It is also believed that genes play a role in who develops COPD and how severe it is. One known genetic cause of COPD is alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

Damage to the lungs caused by emphysema is not reversible. However, emphysema and COPD are both treatable conditions.

In addition to bronchodilators and inhaled steroids, people with these conditions may be given antibiotics to control infections. Other treatments include oxygen therapy. In rare cases, lung reduction surgery or even a lung transplant may be required.

Making lifestyle modifications can make your life easier if you suffer from these conditions. Modifying housework, cooking, and other chores may lessen your symptoms. Keeping windows closed on polluted days and using air conditioning in high humidity can also help.

Coping with End-Stage COPD »

Anyone who has COPD or wants to prevent it needs to give up smoking immediately. According to the CDC, smoking causes about 80 percent of all COPD deaths.

Quitting smoking is often the first line of treatment for patients with emphysema or other types of COPD. Prescription oral medications, patches, and gum can all decrease nicotine cravings.

Little is known about how electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) affect the lungs and whether they contribute to COPD or other lung diseases. Although e-cigarettes are often marketed as a way to quit smoking, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved this use. In addition to nicotine, the vapor in e-cigarettes can also contain heavy metals, superfine debris, and a known cancer-causing substance called acrolein. Many e-cigarette companies label their aerosols and flavorings as ingredients that are “generally regarded as safe,” but that is based on research about ingestion and swallowing, not inhalation. More studies are needed to determine the full impact and potential risks that e-cigarettes pose to humans.

The American Lung Association has called on the Obama Administration and FDA to regulate electronic cigarettes. The association also recommends that people who are trying to quit smoking use an FDA-approved medication instead.

Besides quitting smoking, eating well and managing stress also helps manage emphysema and other forms of COPD. People with COPD are often underweight and need vitamins A, C, and E. Fruits and vegetables should always be a part of your balanced diet. It’s also important to manage other chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure to decrease the complications of COPD.

Stress also can aggravate COPD. Tai chi and yoga both are ways to reduce stress and have shown promise in helping people manage emphysema.

COPD usually can be prevented by maintaining healthy habits. But it remains the third leading cause of death in the United States, affecting 24 million people, or six percent of the population, according to the COPD Foundation and American Lung Association.

In addition to quitting smoking or never picking up the habit, you can protect your lungs by avoiding pollutants. If you work in an environmentally hazardous job, discuss safety measures with your supervisor.