Overview of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is characterized by abnormalities in the lungs that make it difficult to exhale normally. Generally, two distinct diseases are involved: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 75 percent of deaths from COPD that occur in developed countries are directly related to smoking tobacco. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that COPD is a major cause of disability and the third leading cause of death in the United States.

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Emphysema and chronic bronchitis cause excessive inflammatory processes that eventually lead to abnormalities in lung structure that permanently obstruct airflow (hence the term "chronic obstructive"). A recent study shows that adults with asthma are 12 times more likely to develop COPD than those who do not have the condition.

Incidence and Prevalence of COPD

The American Lung Association and the World Health Organization (WHO) track respiratory disease and mortality rates related to tobacco use.

United States—According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COPD affects about 24 million U.S. adults (aged 18 and over). Approximately 50 percent of people with evidence of impaired lung function don't know they have the condition. According to the American Lung Association in 2011, approximately 10.1 million people were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis—the seventh leading chronic condition in the United States.

About 4.1 million people have been diagnosed with emphysema. Of these, about 55.5 percent are men and 44.5 percent are women.

An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people, primarily of northern European descent, have AAT deficiency emphysema. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2009, approximately 133,965 Americans died as a result of COPD.

Russian Federation—Tobacco is a major cause of male mortality in the Russian Federation. In 1995, 280,000 people died from tobacco use. Tobacco caused approximately one-third of all male deaths in 1995 and 18 percent of all deaths. Three-fourths of those men were under 70 years of age.

United Kingdom and Northern Ireland—Although tobacco use has declined dramatically in the U.K., the death rate attributable to COPD and tobacco use was 63 per 100,000 men and 25.1 per 100,000 women in the early 1990s.

China—According to the WHO, tobacco consumption in China doubled between 1965 and 1990. In the mid-1990s, smoking caused far more deaths from COPD than from cardiovascular disease. China has the world's highest rate of mortality attributable to tobacco use.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 May 2000

Last Modified: 03 Nov 2015