Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What is COPD?
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, is a long-term illness in which breathing becomes more and more of a challenge. The flow of air into and out of your lungs is reduced, and you may become short of breath and tire very easily.
COPD is a progressive disease. Symptoms will gradually get worse as time goes on. But while there is no cure for COPD, there is a lot you and your healthcare professionals can do to ease the symptoms of the disease, keep it stable as long as possible and reduce the number of flare-ups. With this kind of approach, you can slow the rate at which it gets worse and have a life that is close to normal for many years.
Many people mistakenly think that their increased coughing and breathlessness are a normal part of aging, and wait to call their healthcare professional. But simple therapies provided by your doctor can improve your health and quality of life considerably.
The Most Common Types of COPD
COPD is a term that refers to two diseases in which patients find it hard to get air in and out of their lungs. These diseases are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Many COPD patients have both conditions together.
This condition affects the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. Normally, oxygen that you have breathed in from the air travels down your bronchial tubes. The oxygen then goes through many branching smaller tubes until it finally reaches the small air sacs. These stretchy little sacs fill up with air like tiny balloons. Then the oxygen from the air crosses through the walls of the air sacs into your blood, and is carried throughout your body inside your red blood cells. In return, the carbon dioxide that builds up in your blood as a waste product escapes through the same little air sacs and you breathe it out.
If you have emphysema, however, the sacs and the airways leading to them lose their stretchiness and start to collapse. Your lungs develop empty spaces or holes where the air sacs should be and the airways become narrower. You have more and more trouble breathing. It becomes especially hard to push out the carbon dioxide (exhale).
Your earliest symptom is shortness of breath (dyspnea). It comes on gradually, so that you may not even notice any change. Progress may be quite slow, but you will start to realize that it is getting harder to breathe from year to year, or that you feel breathless more and more often.
Chronic bronchitis is a long-term irritation of the bronchial tubes—the airways that carry oxygen into your lungs and carbon dioxide back out. The irritated bronchial tubes produce excessive amounts of mucus (phlegm). This builds up in the airways and blocks the air from passing easily. The walls of the tubes also get thicker and irritated, causing the passage to become narrower. Scar tissue also forms in the bronchial tubes, making it harder for them to heal.
Your healthcare professional may tell you that you have chronic bronchitis if your cough brings up mucus, lasts for at least three months, and comes back again for three months or more at least two years in a row.
How Common is COPD?
In the US, about 5% of the population—or about 13.5 million people—have been diagnosed with COPD. The number jumps to 25 million if undiagnosed patients are included. Although COPD can develop in people as young as 25, most cases are diagnosed after the age 45. COPD is responsible for more deaths in women than in men, and kills more women than breast cancer or diabetes. The number of people suffering from COPD is growing because of past decades of cigarette use in this country. It is now the third leading cause of death.
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012