What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is an inflammatory chronic lung disease that leads to obstructed airflow. It typically develops slowly, but it’s progressive, meaning its symptoms worsen over time. It can cause coughing and difficulty breathing.

Two of the most common types of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis refers to the effects on the bronchi, or large airways. Emphysema refers to the changes in the alveoli, or air sacs. Both are common with COPD and both contribute to airflow obstruction and symptoms.

COPD most often affects older adults. COPD can become increasingly restricting on daily activities, and is currently the third leading cause of death in the United States.

The most common symptom of COPD is difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. The narrowing and thickening of the bronchi cause a chronic cough and sputum production.

Other symptoms of COPD include:

  • wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • fatigue
  • swelling in the feet or ankles
  • frequent respiratory infections

Many people in the early stages of COPD have few or no symptoms. People commonly start to develop symptoms once significant damage to the lungs has occurred.

People with COPD are divided into four different groups that range from mild (patient group A) to very severe (patient group D). Different symptoms accompany each group. Each progressing group results in more airway restrictions and limitations than the last. Within each of these groups, people may experience periods where their symptoms are noticeably worse and require medication changes. These periods are known as exacerbations.

You will likely experience some airflow restriction, but not severe symptoms. You will likely have a cough with sputum.

Sputum is a mixture of saliva and mucus that forms in the respiratory tract. You get short of breath when hurrying across level surfaces or when walking on a slight incline. You have no more than one exacerbation per year and you are not hospitalized for your COPD. Some people won’t have bothersome symptoms. Despite this, COPD is actively causing significant lung damage. At this stage, the lungs are still functioning at approximately 80 percent or more of their normal capacity, according to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD).

Your airflow restriction becomes more apparent. You may notice increased difficulty breathing or shortness and breath.

Coughing and sputum production may increase in intensity or frequency. You may experience more intense shortness of breath during physical activity. You may also have to make changes to your daily activities because of your symptoms.

In moderate COPD, the lung function has dropped to 50-79 percent, according to GOLD.

You may become more fatigued and have more prominent breathing problems. Sputum continues to be produced by airways that are even more narrow or damaged.

You have more than one exacerbation per year and have been in the hospital due to COPD.

At this stage, the lungs are functioning at between 30-49 percent of normal capacity.

You have more debilitating breathing problems, even when resting. You have a lot of trouble with daily activities including bathing and dressing. Your quality of life has greatly decreased because of your breathlessness.

Exacerbations occur more often and can be life-threatening. They may require emergency medical attention. Frequent hospitalization may be needed.

In severe COPD, your lungs are functioning at less than 30 percent of normal capacity.

COPD may not be avoidable for everyone, especially in cases where genetics play a factor. But the most effective way to prevent COPD from developing is to not smoke, or quit if you smoke. Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Avoiding exposure to airway pollutants can also help prevent COPD. These pollutants include:

  • chemicals
  • secondhand smoke
  • dust
  • fumes

There are ways to decrease COPD risk. And once a person has developed COPD, there are steps they can take to slow its progression. These include:

  • stop smoking
  • avoid irritants, like chemical fumes or dust
  • get the flu vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine
  • follow treatments from your respiratory therapist
  • learn breathing techniques to breath more efficiently
  • exercise regularly within your capabilities
  • eat a healthy, well-balanced diet

COPD is a serious condition that can significantly impact the quality of a person’s life. If you start to develop symptoms of COPD, see your doctor as soon as possible. Early detection means early treatment, which can slow the progression of the disease. Similarly, consult your doctor if you already have COPD and are experiencing worsening symptoms.