Understanding COPD – It Can Take Your Breath Away

You may have seen COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) mentioned in advertising, or maybe some one you know has the disorder. Most people have heard of this disease but may not fully understand it.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute describes COPD as a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe.

COPD symptoms can include:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing (high pitched whistling sounds).
  • Excess mucus or phlegm.
  • Coughing.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weight changes.
  • Blue lips, nails or skin as oxygen levels become very low.

What causes COPD?

COPD is often a mix of two diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Although someone could have either chronic bronchitis or emphysema, people more often have a mixture of both diseases.

Over time, tobacco smoke and other lung irritants can lead to inflammation in the airways of the lungs.


With emphysema, tobacco smoke and other irritants can damage the elastic fibers in the lungs.

These stretchy strands of tissue are needed for normal lung function. This disease damages the walls between many of the air sacs. As a result, the air sacs lose their shape and become floppy.


With chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways is constantly irritated and inflamed. This causes the lining to thicken. Lots of thick mucus forms in the airways, making it hard to breathe.

Smoking Contributes to the Diseases

Both diseases are typically smoking-related — making smoking the top risk factor for developing COPD. People are more likely to develop COPD as they get older, but this is partly related to the number of years of accumulated damage done by smoking.

Although most cases of COPD are smoking related, not all smokers will develop COPD.

This suggests that other factors in the environment (or a person’s genetic make-up) also contribute to the development of COPD.

Newer research also suggests that people who are repeatedly exposed to second-hand smoke may have an increased risk of developing COPD.

Some People Have a Genetic Risk For COPD

Although COPD usually develops in older people with a long history of cigarette smoking, one form of emphysema has a genetic component and runs in families. It’s more common in persons of northern European descent.

People with this particular defect can develop COPD by early middle age. If you have close relatives who developed COPD in their thirties or forties, your risk for this type of COPD may be elevated.

Other Risks For COPD

A history of frequent childhood lung infections also increases the risk of developing COPD. Frequent infections can lead to scarring of lung tissues, which reduces their elasticity and can lead to COPD.

COPD is much more common in men than in women, but this may be largely related to the higher rate of smoking among men. As the number of women with significant smoking histories has increased, the number of COPD-related deaths among women has also risen.

And finally, COPD has no cure. We cannot reverse the damage done to the airways and lungs.

However, by learning more about treatment options and making lifestyle changes, people living with COPD can feel better, stay active and slow the progression of this disease.

Meet the Author

Crystal Cichon, DO is a doctor of osteopathic medicine specializing in family medicine at Aurora Health Center in Waukesha, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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