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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Facts

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) prevents the lungs from working normally, and is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

The two main types of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These illnesses inflame the airways in the lungs and limit the ability to breathe. In addition:

  • Emphysema wears away the walls between the air sacs in the lungs. This results in larger, less flexible sacs, which don't take in oxygen or release carbon dioxide as efficiently. People with emphysema can run short of breath during physical activity and even while they're inactive.

  • Chronic bronchitis creates a buildup of mucus that causes breathing problems and constant coughing. Another symptom is an unexpected tightening of the muscles around the lungs, which can narrow the airways and further restrict breathing.

Eighty percent of COPD cases are caused by smoking, but COPD can also be caused by long-term exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes, vapors, and mineral and organic dust. Because these triggers are inhaled over many years, the disease comes on gradually and is considered a progressive disease.

Several tests are used to diagnose COPD. Spirometry checks how much air the lungs can hold and how fast they empty after a deep breath. Arterial blood gas testing measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

Currently, there is no cure for COPD. More than 12 million Americans have the disease, and approximately 12 million more have it but haven't been diagnosed yet. Fortunately, there are several treatment options and ways to reduce symptoms. The best way to reduce COPD symptoms, or the risk for developing the disease, is to quit smoking.

Treatment for COPD includes a combination of medication, rehabilitation, and, in rare cases, surgery:

  • Bronchodilators can be used to relax the muscles around the lungs.

  • Inhaled steroids reduce swelling in the airways, allowing a person to breathe more easily.

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation can improve lung function with exercise, a healthy diet, and education about how to live with COPD.

  • Supplemental oxygen (easy-to-access oxygen in a tank) can work well for people with highly developed cases.

  • Surgery may be recommended in severe cases to take out sections of damaged lung, which can improve breathing.

No matter which course of treatment is followed, everyone with COPD should have an annual flu shot and should ask his or her doctor about getting a pneumonia vaccine.


Online Medical Reviewer: Mukamal, Kenneth MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2009
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