According to the COPD Foundation, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is “an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. This disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness.”

COPD Causes

Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants. This includes cigarette smoke (and other forms of tobacco smoke such as cigar smoke and secondhand smoke), fumes, chemicals and dust found in many work environments, and smog.

Genetics can also play a role in an individual’s development of COPD—even if the person has never smoked or has ever been exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace.

How Many People Have COPD

Measuring cases of COPD is challenging because in many instances patients and doctors are treating a more specific condition that falls under the COPD umbrella. For example, people with chronic bronchitis may not be documented as suffering from COPD.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD. That said, as of 2011, 10 million Americans had chronic bronchitis, and 4.7 million had emphysema.

The ALA says that millions of people may have COPD without knowing it. In many cases, COPD is often not detected until the disease is very advanced because people do not know the early warning signs. Sometimes people think they are short of breath or less able to take part in their normal activities because they are “just getting older.”

Symptoms the ALA says should prompt you to see a doctor include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities (dyspnea)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
  • Fatigue
  • Producing a lot of mucus (also called phlegm or sputum)
  • Wheezing

COPD is a serious condition. If you have COPD, you are more likely to be vulnerable to the colds, the flu, and pneumonia. COPD also increases the risk of developing pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the arteries that serve the lungs.

COPD Diagnosis

Because COPD includes conditions like chronic bronchitis and emphysema, in order diagnose the disease your doctor will evaluate your symptoms, ask for your complete health history, conduct a health exam and look at test results.

Questions a doctor will ask include:

  • Do you smoke or have a history of smoking
  • Have you been exposed to secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemicals or dust
  • Do you have symptoms such as shortness of breath, chronic cough or lots of mucus
  • Do you have family members who have had COPD


There is no cure for COPD, and there is no way to reverse the disease. However, it can be effectively managed if detected early. Treatment options include medications, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation and social support. Medications include inhalers that open the airways or reduce airway inflammation, supplemental oxygen, and alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) infusions for patients that have an A1AT deficiency. A type of enzyme inhibitor called PDE4 can reduce inflammation in some patients. Doctors also recommend that COPD patients quit smoking and regularly get flu and pneumonia vaccines to prevent serious illness.

Chronic Care Management

Because COPD is a chronic condition and often involves one or more chronic conditions, many patients are eligible for Medicare’s Chronic Care Management program (CCM). CCM empowers doctors to check on patients twice per month by phone or online to monitor conditions, and to coordinate care among multiple physicians and therapists in order to optimize care and improve outcomes.  

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