Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)

Basic Facts

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) isn’t curable and gets worse over time. However, treatments can control symptoms, reduce flare-ups, and help people have a good quality of life.

People with COPD have chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both.  Many COPD patients have both conditions together. Most cases are diagnosed after the age of 45. 

COPD is a serious health problem, especially for older adults:

  • About 5 percent of the general population has COPD, while about 10 percent of people age 75 years and older do.
  • COPD is the third most common cause of death after heart disease and cancer.
  • About 20% of hospitalizations for adults age 65 and older are due to COPD.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term irritation and inflammation of the lungs’ airways involved in breathing. These irritated airways:

  • Produce too much mucus, which builds up and blocks airflow.
  • Get narrower, which also restricts airflow.
  • Can become scarred from irritation and inflammation, making it harder for them to heal. 


When a person breathes in, air flows into smaller branches of airways. Then, air travels to alveoli. Alveoli are tiny air sacs in the lungs where the oxygen goes into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide comes out.

Normally, alveoli work like little balloons. They expand when a person inhales and contract when a person exhales. Emphysema causes:

  • Alveoli to become less flexible, damaged or destroyed.
  • Small airways leading to alveoli to collapse.
  • Air to get “trapped” in the lungs, making it hard to breathe out.

With fewer healthy alveoli,  a person finds it harder to breathe.

The earliest symptom of emphysema is dyspnea (shortness of breath). If you notice that you are short of breath now or during normal activities, let your healthcare professional know. 


Last Updated May 2023

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