Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that gets worse over time. COPD makes it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. It will make breathing difficult. COPD includes:
These diseases often occur together. The causes and treatment of each condition are similar.
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COPD is caused by damage to the lungs. This damage can be caused by:
- Cigarette smoking
- Inhaling toxins or other irritants like wood smoke or dusts and fumes at work
- Certain genes that make the lungs more easily damaged by smoke or pollutants—example alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency
COPD is more common in adults who are older than 40 years old.
Factors that increase your chance of developing COPD include:
- Smoking cigarettes
- Long-term exposure to secondhand or passive smoke (in any form)
- Family members with COPD
- Exposure to pollutants
- History of frequent childhood lung infections
- Smoking unusual forms of tobacco, such as Chinese waterpipes
Early symptoms of COPD include:
- Increased sputum production—mucus from deep in the lungs
- Shortness of breath with activity
As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:
- Increased shortness of breath
- Choking sensation when lying flat
- Trouble concentrating
- Weight loss
- Breathing through pursed lips
- Desire to lean forward to improve breathing
- Periods of more severe symptoms
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your doctor will need to test how impaired your lungs are. This may be done with:
- Lung function tests (spirometry)—to test the force of your breath
- Blood test—to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood
Your doctor may also need detailed pictures of your lungs. This may be done with:
There is no cure for COPD. Treatment aims to ease symptoms and improve quality of life.
If you smoke, quitting can slow the disease. It is the most important part of treatment. There are many tools to help you quit, including:
- Behavior change program
- Combination of behavior program and medication
Limit the number of irritants in the air you breathe. It may help make breathing easier. Avoid smoke, dust, smog, extreme heat or cold, and high altitudes.
Medication for COPD may help by:
- Opening the airways
- Relaxing the breathing passages
- Decreasing inflammation
- Treating lung infections (antibiotics)
Some medication may be taken as pills or liquids. Others can be inhaled so that they are delivered directly to the lungs.
Oxygen therapy may be helpful if the oxygen levels in your blood are too low. It can relieve trouble breathing and improve energy. You may only need it for certain activities. It could also be given throughout the day.
Special exercises can strengthen chest muscles. This can make it easier to breathe.
Regular physical activity can:
- Help to build up your endurance
- Reduce the workload on your lungs
- Improve quality of life
Follow your doctor's recommendations for activity levels and restrictions.
Breathing and Coughing Techniques
Special methods of breathing can help bring more air into your lungs. It can also help force trapped air out of your lungs. Effective coughing techniques can help clear mucus from your lungs. Ask your doctor if these techniques can help you. Some examples include:
- Pursed-lip breathing
- Controlled coughing technique
Eating habits to consider with COPD:
- Eat a healthy diet. It should be low in saturated fat. It should also be rich in fruits, vegetables , and whole grain foods.
- Maintain a normal weight. Excess weight causes the lungs and heart to work harder.
- It may be hard to eat because you feel full. Try eating several smaller meals during the day. This is better than a few large meals.
- Slow down your eating pace. This will make it easier to breathe.
- If you need to gain weight, add food or drinks throughout the day. Talk to a dietitian about how many calories you need each day.
The following may help you manage COPD symptoms and avoid flare-ups:
- Pace your activities.
- Learn relaxation techniques and other methods to manage stress.
- Seek emotional support from professionals, family, and friends. Anxiety can increase how fast you breathe and make breathing more strenuous.
A small number of patients may benefit from surgery. Surgery options include removing a part of the lung. You could also have a lung transplant.
Take these steps to reduce your chance of developing COPD:
- If you smoke, quit.
- Avoid exposure to second-hand smoke.
- Avoid exposure to air pollution or irritants.
- Wear protective gear if exposed to irritants or toxins at work.
American Lung Association http://www.lung.org
National Lung Health Education Program http://www.nlhep.org
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Spirometry. National Lung Health Education Program website. Available at: http://www.nlhep.org/Pages/Spirometry.aspx. Accessed September 15, 2015.
What is COPD? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd. Updated May 22, 2014. Accessed September 15, 2015.
Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease 2017. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease website. Available at: http://goldcopd.org/. Published January 2017. Accessed February 22, 2017.
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- Reviewer: Kari Kassir, MD
- Review Date: 09/2018
- Update Date: 03/30/2018