Millions of people in the United States and worldwide have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is a lung condition that you either develop from external factors or that you inherit, and it lasts throughout your life.

It causes breathing difficulty and discomfort. There are two causes of COPD: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. While asthma is not typically considered one of the conditions classified as COPD, some people may have both.

You may have COPD if you notice persistent, prolonged changes to your breathing. Symptoms include:

  • tightness in your chest
  • difficulty taking deep breaths
  • wheezing
  • feeling out of breath
  • coughing
  • feeling tired
  • frequent colds and infections in your nose and throat

These symptoms will get worse over time if you don’t seek treatment. You can also develop conditions like irregular heartbeats, heart failure, and high blood pressure if you don’t get COPD diagnosed and treated.

Two conditions cause COPD: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Both affect your lungs in different ways. Asthma is not typically considered a type of COPD, but it is a chronic respiratory condition. You can have asthma along with COPD.

Chronic bronchitis

Bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes in your lungs. It irritates them and then the tubes swell. The narrowing of these tubes leads to coughing and shortness of breath. You will also have mucus in your cough. This condition makes it difficult for your lungs to bring air in and let it out.

Chronic bronchitis is the condition that causes COPD. It means that you have had bronchitis for at least three months in two different years. Chronic bronchitis develops because fibers that look like hairs, called cilia, disappear from your bronchial tubes. This makes it difficult to cough mucus from your lungs.


Emphysema affects how your lungs transfer oxygen into your bloodstream. This can result in difficulty breathing because your lungs lose their elasticity.

Emphysema causes damage to the alveoli. These are your lungs’ air sacs. The damage destroys the walls of the alveoli. There are 300 million alveoli in your lungs. This causes them to increase in size. The larger size makes it harder for your lungs to move oxygen into your bloodstream.

It also stretches out your lungs. This makes it more difficult to breathe because air gets trapped in them. This damage cannot be reversed.


Asthma is not a condition that causes COPD, but you can have asthma and COPD. This condition is called asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS). People ages 40 and older can get this condition. It affects 1 in 4 of those with COPD.

It can lead to more problematic respiratory symptoms, affect your quality of life, and increase the chances of hospitalization.

Both types of COPD can occur for the same reasons. External factors cause most cases of COPD. Therefore, COPD in many cases is preventable.

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Other environmental factors can cause COPD, such as:

  • secondhand smoke
  • pollution
  • chemicals
  • dust

You can also inherit COPD. Some individuals carry an alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency in their genetics. This can cause emphysema.

Your doctor will diagnose COPD using a breathing test called a spirometry test. This measures how much air you exhale. You take deep breaths into a tube that a computer monitors to determine if you have COPD or another condition like asthma.

Your doctor may order an imaging test to see your lungs. This could be a chest X-ray or a CT scan.

Additional diagnostic tests may include monitoring your breath as you sleep or exercise.

Treating COPD can involve many factors.

Lifestyle modifications

Lifestyle modifications are a part of treatment. You should quit smoking immediately after you are diagnosed. Your doctor can provide you with tips and resources to help you quit.

Eating a healthy diet and getting appropriate exercise for your condition will also help you live a fuller life with COPD.

Avoid contact with people who are sick, and practice hand hygiene by washing them with soap and water or using hand sanitizer frequently. This will help you manage your COPD symptoms.

Medical treatments

Medical treatments for COPD include:

  • a short-acting bronchodilator to relax the muscles around your lungs
  • inhaled or oral corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
  • antibiotics for infections
  • phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors
  • theophylline
  • oxygen therapy
  • pulmonary rehab
  • surgery (for serious cases)
  • lung transplant

You may use a nebulizer or inhaler to administer medications that you inhale directly into your lungs.

Oxygen therapy involves wearing a mask or nasal piece that is attached to an oxygen canister. It delivers oxygen into your lungs to help you breathe.

Pulmonary rehab includes a team of specialists to help you control your COPD.

Preventive vaccines for the flu and pneumonia are also useful for managing the condition.

There is no set age for a COPD screening. Therefore, you should discuss symptoms with your doctor if you suspect COPD. Your doctor may be aware of your breathing difficulties and diagnose the condition without your prompting, but don’t back if you suspect you have this lung condition. Early treatment will prevent the condition from getting worse.

Keep in regular contact with your doctor following a diagnosis of COPD. Reach out if you experience side effects to medications, worsening symptoms, or new symptoms.

COPD is a serious and chronic lung condition. Two conditions cause it: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Your doctor will diagnose the condition with a breathing test.

You will likely need to make lifestyle changes, in addition to medication, to prevent the condition from worsening.

Talk to your doctor if you suspect COPD or if you have the condition and experience flaring symptoms.