Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, often referred to as COPD, is a very difficult medical condition for people to deal with. With COPD, it is constantly hard to breathe, and breathing becomes a daily chore. Read on to learn more about this medical condition.

What Is It?

COPD is characterized by breathing-related problems due to blockage of the airway. It is also one of the most common forms of lung disease having caused an estimated 126,005 deaths in the United States in 2005. Three of the most common subtypes of COPD are emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and serious cases of asthma; often times, the affected individual may have a combination of more than one subtypes.


Perhaps the most prevalent cause of COPD in industrialized countries is cigarette smoking. Other forms of respiratory irritants, such as inhaling chemical fumes, bad air quality, or high amounts of dust, can also lead to COPD in the long term.

Other chronic respiratory conditions involving narrowing of the airways can also lead to COPD; in fact, some of them are subtypes of the disease. Some examples include chronic bronchitis and serious cases of asthma, which are both characterized by chronic inflammation and narrowing of the airway due to excess mucus production. Emphysema, another common condition that causes COPD, is characterized by the defected exchange of air and CO2 within the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs, hence leading to shortness of breath and the struggle for oxygen.

[See – Emphysema And Chronic Bronchitis: Living With COPD]


Some complications of COPD include:

  • Respiratory infections. As the disease has already impaired the respiratory system, it also greatly increases the person’s risk for other respiratory infections, such as the flu or pneumonia.
  • Cardiovascular problems. COPD can cause high blood pressure and put great strain on the heart due to the defected oxygen exchange in the lungs. The body will struggle to compensate by attempting to pump blood harder throughout the body, and may lead to further swelling of the limbs. Furthermore, the stress on the heart can lead to various heart problems, such as heart attacks.
  • Depression. The constant struggle for air can greatly decrease the quality of living for the affected individual, as daily activities may become greatly limited. Hence, COPD individuals are also at a greater risk for depression than healthy individuals.

Signs And Symptoms

The overarching symptoms of COPD include:

  • Breathlessness, or the need for air
  • Shortness of breath
  • Use of accessory muscles to inhale (such as straining the neck muscles to breathe)
  • Excess sputum
  • Chronic coughing
  • A “tripod” breathing position while sitting (where the individual is hunched, with both arms placed in front of the body as support)


Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. However, there are many forms of treatment available to decrease symptoms and improve the quality of life.

  • Medications. Most medications prescribed to relieve COPD symptoms are inhalers. Common forms include bronchodilators, which relax the muscles of the airway so the patient can breathe better, and steroids, which reduce inflammation and swelling of the airways. However, medications can also come with other side effects, so be sure to talk to your doctor about medication choices.
  • Respiratory therapy. Different types of oxygen therapy can be used to help the affected individual obtain more oxygen. It usually involves using a device (ranging from lightweight, portable units to large oxygen tanks) to deliver oxygen to the lungs. Other types of rehabilitation therapy may involve a combination of education, counseling, nutrition, and physical exercise to try to improve the efficiency of the heart.
  • Surgery. Lung surgery can benefit certain types of COPD sufferers, such as emphysema. Otherwise, lung transplants have also been used as a treatment option. However, be sure to discuss with your doctor about the risk and benefits of receiving surgery before making any decisions.

[See – Breathing Exercises For COPD]

Risk Factors

COPD can definitely be prevented. Some risk factors for the illness include:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Inhaling second hand smoke
  • Environmental air pollution
  • Indoor air pollution (such as wet paint, fumes emitted by industrial cleaners, etc)
  • Occupational fumes (such as vapors, dust, chemicals, and irritants)
  • Frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood
  • Family history/genetic

Be sure to take measures against bad air quality, such as investing in an air purifier, breathing mask, or simply ventilating the area when possible.

[See – How To Improve Indoor Air Quality]

Although COPD seems dreary, it also has a relatively simple path for prevention: stop smoking cigarettes as soon as possible, never smoke if you can help it, and avoid second hand smoke at all costs. Although this idea may not be easy for chronic smokers, many smoking cessation programs can definitely help initiate the process. If inhaling fumes and chemicals is a common occupational hazard for you, talk to your employer about safety measures to protect yourself and decrease your chances of developing COPD. Either way, protecting your lungs will serve you well in the long run.


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