COPD 101

By Laura Putre

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that affects 25 million Americans, most of whom are middle-aged or older. COPD can slow you down, but you can take steps to control its progression and live a longer, more active life.

What Is COPD?

COPD is an umbrella term for two coexisting diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis occurs when the lining of your airways becomes irritated and inflamed. The inflammation restricts the flow of air in and out of your lungs and causes coughing and mucus buildup. Emphysema is characterized by the destruction of the alveoli, small sacs that transmit oxygen and blood through your lungs. As a result, airflow is reduced and your lungs are not able to function properly.

Ninety percent of COPD cases are caused by smoking; breathing in secondhand smoke or working around hazardous fumes can also contribute. In rare cases, COPD is caused by severe asthma or a genetic disorder.

Know the Symptoms of COPD

Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, breathlessness, frequent coughing that produces mucus, tightness in your chest and wheezing—all of which get worse over time. Eventually, you may have trouble exercising or walking because your muscles are not getting the oxygen they need to thrive.

You may also be more vulnerable to infections like the flu and pneumonia, says Karin Hehenberger, M.D., Ph.D., a health and wellness expert in New York City. "This is due to the airways getting narrower and less elastic, which makes it hard to clear out mucus in the lungs." That's why, if you have COPD, it's critical to get the flu and pneumonia vaccines.

How Is COPD Diagnosed?

The most important test for diagnosing COPD is called spirometry. For this, you blow into a tube connected to a machine that measures how much air you can blow out and how quickly. In addition, your doctor may order a chest x-ray and an arterial blood test to measure the oxygen level in your blood.

COPD Treatment Options

Once you've been diagnosed, the most important thing you can do is stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Your doctor may prescribe bronchodilators, medicines that relax the muscles around your airways.

If your symptoms are severe, you may also be prescribed an inhaled steroid to reduce inflammation in the lungs. A combination drug—one that includes both corticosteroids and bronchodilators—is another option.

If you have a low blood level of oxygen, you may require oxygen therapy, delivered via a nasal cannula attached to a canister.

A physical therapist can help you devise a realistic exercise program. Low-impact exercises such as slow walking and using an arm ergometer (a stationary bicycle for arms) can help you maintain muscle mass.

Your doctor or a respiratory therapist may also teach you some new breathing techniques. Inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth with your lips pursed helps push the air all the way down to the deep part of your lungs. Breathing deeply all the way through your diaphragm, rather than taking shallow breaths, helps to accomplish this as well.

From our sister publication REMEDY's Healthy Living Summer 2014

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 16 Jun 2014

Last Modified: 16 Jun 2014