COPD: Frequently Asked Questions

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illustration of alveoli (tiny air sacs) in lungs and blood oxygen exchange
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About 16 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), millions more have COPD but they’ve not been diagnosed. COPD occurs gradually, but it is chronic and has no cure. Learn more here from commonly asked COPD questions, including information on COPD exacerbations, exercising with COPD, and COPD prognosis.

What is COPD and what causes it?

COPD is an umbrella term to describe a chronic, progressive respiratory disease that includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma that doesn’t respond to treatment, called refractory asthma. COPD is a progressive condition that has no cure.

Chronic bronchitis is caused by chronic inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which allow air to flow into and out of your lungs. Inflammation causes you to cough and produce large amounts of mucus. It is most frequently caused by smoking cigarettes, but long-term exposure to irritants and toxic chemicals in the air can also cause it.

Emphysema—which has the same causes as chronic bronchitis—occurs when damage to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs make the alveoli less able to absorb oxygen.

Refractory asthma is a condition that results from asthma symptoms that do not go away despite treatment. It can be allergies, respiratory infections, and irritants in the air, among other triggers, can cause asthma.

How is COPD diagnosed?

It isn’t unusual for a person with COPD to receive a diagnosis long after the condition is advanced because symptoms can be mistaken for other diagnoses.

COPD symptoms include:

  • Being short of breath during activities and at rest

  • Wheezing

  • A feeling of tightness in your chest

  • Excess mucus (phlegm)

  • Constant throat clearing, especially in the morning

  • Chronic cough

  • Fatigue

  • Weight loss

  • Bluish tint to your lips and fingernail beds

  • Frequent respiratory infections like the common cold or pneumonia

  • Swollen ankles, feet or legs (edema)

Diagnosis is based on your medical and lifestyle history (smoking, working with airborne irritants, etc.), a physical examination, and certain diagnostic tests. They could include:

  • Chest X-ray to show the condition of your lungs

  • Pulmonary function tests to see how much air your lungs can hold and how efficiently you exhale the air

  • Arterial blood test to check how much oxygen is in your blood as it leaves your heart

  • CT scan, also to show the condition of your lungs

How is COPD treated?

COPD is an incurable condition, but treatment may slow down its progress and improve your breathing and quality of life. The first steps in treating COPD is to remove what may be causing it. For example, if you smoke, your doctor will advise you to quit. If you work in an environment with toxic airborne irritants, you should not work there any longer. A respiratory therapist can work with you to learn how to breathe effectively, and you may be referred to a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

Certain medications can make it easier to breathe. Bronchodilators, for example, help open your bronchial tubes. Available by inhaler, there are short-acting and long-acting versions. Doctors also prescribe corticosteroids, which help reduce inflammation in the airway. Other medications may include:

As the condition progresses, you may have to use supplemental oxygen. At first, you may only need to use it at night or when you are doing an activity that may make you short of breath, but this can progress to needing to use it all the time.

What is a COPD exacerbation?

An exacerbation is a flare-up. People who have COPD can have exacerbations triggered by infections, like a cold, or exposure to irritants in the air. It’s important to treat an exacerbation as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of it becoming severe.

If you have COPD and are finding it harder to breathe or you are coughing more than usual, contact your doctor or healthcare team right away. You may already have a plan of what medications to take if you have an exacerbation. If so, start this plan when you feel you need it rather than trying to wait it out.

Why should I try to exercise if I have COPD?

Some people with COPD are reluctant to exercise because physical activity can make it harder to breathe. However, exercise can help your lung function and breathing in the long run, as well as helping decrease the risk of other health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

Exercise can be at any level you feel comfortable with. For some people, this means going to the gym and doing strength training, for others, it’s going for regular walks or using a stationary bike. The goal is to keep moving as much as you can within your limits. Speak with your doctor about what type of exercise is best for you. A respiratory therapist can teach you breathing techniques to use while you are exercising. Ask your doctor about pulmonary rehabilitation and working with a respiratory therapist.

What is the outlook for people with COPD?

COPD is a chronic, progressive disease. However, by following your treatment plan and monitoring your health to quickly address any infections or other health issues, you increase your chances of lessening your symptoms and their severity. Speak with your doctor about your prognosis (outlook) and what you can do to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 26
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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