How Fast Does COPD Progress?

Medically Reviewed By Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) tends to develop slowly over many years. How fast COPD progresses can depend on factors such as your underlying health and treatment effectiveness. COPD is a group of conditions characterized by inflammation in the airways that leads to difficulty breathing. It includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Treatment may help slow the progression of COPD and alleviate symptoms.

This article discusses how fast COPD progresses, including its stages of development and the factors that may affect the rate of progression. It also explains the prevention, management, and outlook of COPD progression.

How fast does COPD progress?

An older adult standing in a wood takes a deep breath in with their eyes closed.
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COPD can progress at differing speeds. It may take months, often Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source years, for COPD to progress from stage to stage.

However, COPD often progresses slowly.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), many people with COPD do not have noticeable symptoms until they are in their late 40s or 50s, even if they have developed it earlier.

While slower progression may be positive, it also means COPD can become more advanced without noticeable symptoms. This can delay receiving treatment to prevent further progression.

A key study from 2009 Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source researched how COPD may decrease life expectancy. Generally, the results suggest COPD reduces life expectancy according to the person’s COPD stage and smoking status.

Researchers compared life expectancy in people 65 years old. For example, a 65-year-old female with stage 3 COPD who formerly smoked may have a 6.3-year lower life expectancy than a 65-year-old female without COPD who also formerly smoked.

The following table outlines the average life expectancy reductions for people with COPD in the study:

Stage of COPDFemales who never smokedMales who never smokedFemales who formerly smokedMales who formerly smokedFemales who continued smokingMales who continued smoking
stage 10.2 years0.3 years
stage 21 year0.7 years2 years1.4 years2.2 years2.2 years
stage 3 or 41.9 years1.3 years6.3 years5.6 years6.1 years5.8 years

For stage 1 COPD in people who never or formerly smoked, researchers saw an increased estimated life expectancy of 0.1–0.2 years. However, they note these increases may be due to study errors from limited sample sizes.

Because this is an older study and just one example of how COPD can progress, it cannot predict your own life expectancy. Talk with your doctor if you have any questions about your outlook.

Learn more about the outlook and life expectancy of COPD.

Stages of development

One of the main ways doctors assess the stage or progression of COPD is by using the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) guidelines. It involves classifying COPD with a lettered and numbered grade, such as B2.

The GOLD guidelines assess your:

  • symptoms and their effects on your life
  • risk of flare-ups, which is when your symptoms suddenly worsen

Doctors use this information to classify your COPD into one of four letters from A–D.

Doctors also assess your forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1). This uses a spirometry test, which measures the amount of air you can breathe out during the first second of exhaling.

A lower rate than expected suggests your airways and breathing are obstructed. Your doctor can help you identify your expected rate.

Your FEV1 rate is assigned a number from 1–4:

  • Grade 1, mild: Your FEV1 rate is at least 80% of your expected volume.
  • Grade 2, moderate: Your FEV1 rate is 50–80% of your expected volume.
  • Grade 3, severe: Your FEV1 rate is 30–50% of your expected volume.
  • Grade 4, very severe: Your FEV1 rate is less than 30% of your expected volume.

Factors that affect COPD progression

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source suggests that tobacco smoke is a key factor in the onset and progression of COPD.

Other factors that may link to COPD progression and severity include:

  • having more impaired lung function
  • having a previous COPD flare-up
  • having a low body mass index (BMI)
  • having signs of inflammation, such as higher levels of eosinophils, a type of white blood cell
  • being older
  • having further exposure to other triggers or harmful substances, such as:
    • secondhand smoke
    • other fumes, gases, and airborne irritants, such as from pollution or industrial processes
    • pollen
    • respiratory infections
    • irritating weather, such as sudden temperature changes, humidity, or wind

Research Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source has also linked other underlying health conditions to a more negative outlook, such as:

By contrast, you may have a more positive outlook or slower progression if you:

  • receive a diagnosis and treatment in the early stages of COPD
  • adopt lifestyle strategies to help slow the speed of progression

Below, we discuss some ways to help reduce how fast COPD progresses.

Prevention and management

You cannot prevent all COPD progression. However, certain treatment and management techniques may help slow the progression of COPD and lower the risk of complications.

The National Health Service (NHS) states that if you smoke, quitting smoking is the most effective way to prevent COPD from progressing.

Other approaches to help minimize progression include:

  • following your doctor’s recommendations for treatment
  • keeping all of your recommended medical appointments and staying in contact with your medical team
  • getting regular physical activity, with guidance from your doctor
  • maintaining a moderate BMI
  • keeping up to date with all recommended vaccinations, such as annual flu vaccinations and COVID-19 vaccinations
  • keeping physical distance from people with respiratory infections
  • practicing breathing techniques for COPD
  • minimizing exposure to your COPD triggers, such as checking the air quality index before spending extended time outside

See more about medical treatment options for COPD.

It’s also advisable to contact your doctor if you:

  • have any symptoms of respiratory infection
  • are exposed to any of your triggers, such as high levels of smoke
  • feel like your symptoms are changing or worsening, such as having new or more frequent symptoms
  • feel that your treatment is not working effectively
  • are having difficulty following your treatment plan
  • have any other questions about COPD or your outlook

FAQ

Adithya Cattamanchi, MD, has also reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

Is COPD a ‘death sentence’?

Some experts do not consider COPD a terminal illness.

Many treatments are available to help treat COPD, alleviate symptoms, and slow progression.

Does COPD progress after quitting smoking?

COPD can progress after quitting smoking because other factors may still contribute to COPD.

Former smokers may also have a slightly reduced Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source life expectancy than people who never smoked. However, outcomes can still be more positive for people who quit smoking than those who continue smoking with COPD.

How fast does COPD progress if you continue to smoke?

COPD will progress faster Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source if you continue smoking. However, how fast COPD progresses if you continue to smoke can vary per person.

Summary

Many factors can affect how fast COPD progresses, such as:

  • smoking status
  • history of COPD flare-ups
  • how early you received a diagnosis and treatment
  • your underlying health
  • exposure to triggers

Generally, COPD progresses slowly over many years.

Treatment and lifestyle strategies can help slow the progression of COPD and prevent flare-ups. These strategies include following your prescribed treatment plan, getting vaccinated against respiratory illnesses, and getting regular physical activity.

Quitting smoking can also have a significant positive impact on your outlook.

Talk with your doctor about your COPD progression, symptoms, or treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2023 Sep 12
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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.