Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)

Basic Facts

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) 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 get tired very easily. 

COPD is a progressive disease. This means that symptoms will gradually get worse as time goes on. There is no cure for COPD, but there is a lot that you and your healthcare providers 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 provider. But simple therapies provided by your provider 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 alveoli (tiny air sacs) in your lungs.  Normally, you breathe in oxygen from the air, which travels down your bronchial tubes. The oxygen then goes through many branching smaller tubes until it finally reaches the small air sacs. These small, stretchy sacs fill up with air like tiny balloons. Then the oxygen from the air crosses through the walls of the alveoli into your blood. The oxygen is then carried throughout your body inside your red blood cells. While this happens, carbon dioxide also builds up in your blood as a waste product. The carbon dioxide then escapes through the same air sacs and you breathe it out. 

However, if you have emphysema, the alveoli 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 exhale (push out the carbon dioxide).  

The earliest symptom of emphysema is dyspnea (shortness of breath).  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

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term irritation of the bronchial tubes. The bronchial tubes are the airways that carry oxygen into your lungs and carbon dioxide back out. When the bronchial tubes are irritated, they produce excessive amounts of phlegm (mucus). 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. 

There are three signs that your healthcare provider can use to tell if you may have chronic bronchitis:

  1. Your cough brings up mucus. 
  2. Your cough lasts for at least three months. 
  3. Your cough comes back again and lasts for three months or more. 

If these signs happen at least two years in a row, you may have chronic bronchitis. 

How Common is COPD?

In the US, about 5% of the population has been diagnosed with COPD (about 13.5 million people). 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 of 45. COPD is responsible for more deaths in women than in men, and kills more women than breast cancer or diabetes does. 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.


Last Updated October 2017