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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease



Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that gets worse over time. It makes it hard to move air in and out of the lungs. Forms of COPD include:

These diseases often happen together. The causes and treatment are alike.

Normal Lung and Lung with Emphysema.

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COPD is caused by damage to the lungs from:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Inhaling toxins or other irritants like wood smoke or dust and fumes at work
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin gene deficiency (rare)

Risk Factors

Things that raise the risk of COPD are:

  • Smoking cigarettes or other forms of tobacco
  • Long-term exposure to secondhand or passive smoke (in any form)
  • Exposure to pollutants
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency


Early problems are:

  • Coughing
  • Coughing up mucus from deep in the lungs
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath with activity

As the disease gets worse, problems may be:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • A choking feeling when lying flat
  • Feeling very tired
  • Problems with focus
  • Weight loss
  • Breathing through pursed lips
  • Leaning forward to breathe better
  • Flareups of these symptoms


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on a person's breathing. This may be enough to make the diagnosis.

Lung function tests will be done to confirm the diagnosis. This can be done with spirometry to test the force of a person's breath.


There is no cure for COPD. It will get worse over time. The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms and improve quality of life. A plan will be made with the care team.

A pulmonary rehabilitation program can be helpful. It offers education and tips to stay healthy. Other treatments are:


The risk of COPD can be lowered by:

  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding places where people smoke
  • Avoiding air pollution and other irritants

Smoking Cessation

Smoking will worsen COPD. There are a number of tools to help quit smoking, such as:

  • Behavior change programs
  • Medicine
  • Nicotine replacement therapy, such as gum, patches, or sprays




  • COPD. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/copd.
  • Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD). Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of COPD. GOLD 2019.
  • Living with COPD. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/copd.


  • Kari Kuenn, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.