What is COPD?

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive lung disease that causes coughing, sputum production, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms. COPD is a major cause of disability, and it’s the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. More than 12 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD. An additional 12 million likely have the disease and don’t even know it. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. The term “COPD” includes two main conditions, emphysema and chronic obstructive bronchitis. In emphysema, the walls between many of the air sacs are damaged, causing them to lose their shape and become floppy. This damage also can destroy the walls of the air sacs, leading to fewer and larger air sacs instead of many tiny ones. In chronic obstructive bronchitis, the lining of the airways is constantly irritated and inflamed. This causes the lining to thicken. Lots of thick mucus forms in the airways, making it hard to breathe. Most people who have COPD have both emphysema and chronic obstructive bronchitis. Thus, the general term “COPD” is more accurate. COPD develops slowly. Symptoms often worsen over time and can limit your ability to do routine activities. Severe COPD may prevent you from doing even basic activities like walking, cooking, or taking care of your-self. COPD has no cure yet. However, treatments and lifestyle changes can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.

How is COPD Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose COPD based on your signs and symptoms, your medical and family histories, along with an examination. The diagnosis is confirmed with lung function tests. These tests measure how much air you can breathe in and out, how fast you can breathe air out, and how well your lungs can deliver oxygen to your blood. The primary test for COPD is spirometry. During this painless test, a technician will ask you to take a deep breath in and then blow as hard as you can into a tube connected to a small machine. The machine is called a spirometer. Spirometry can detect COPD even before you have symptoms of the disease. It can also be used to track the progression of disease and to monitor how well treatment is working.