A Guide to Understanding What COPD Is (And Isn’t)

What Is COPD? A Guide to Understanding COPD

what is copd?
If you have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, know that you are not alone – upwards of 15.7 million Americans also have been diagnosed with COPD.

This is approximately 6.4 percent of the American population!

At a very basic level, COPD is a grouping of diseases that cause breathing problems; over 50 percent of Americans state that they were unaware that their pulmonary function was diminished, so the actual number of people with COPD is likely higher.

Often when you’re diagnosed with a condition, your physician delivers the news, hands you several new prescriptions and sends you on your way.

If you’re really lucky, your physician may spend a little bit of time discussing your condition – focusing and perhaps focusing more on treatment – and may even print of several handouts so that you can do a bit of reading after your appointment to give you a better understanding about your new condition. Such is the nature of healthcare these days when our appointments are only allotted 15 minutes.

My guess is that when you received your diagnosis of COPD, you left that appointment with unanswered questions and were a bit overwhelmed – which is why you’re here.

What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

As we’ve already briefly discussed COPD is a group of diseases that causes breathing problems.

COPD is an umbrella term for several progressive lung disorders that occur simultaneously – emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory asthma (asthma that is not reversible).


We consider COPD progressive because, at this time, there is no cure, meaning that the disease will continually progress – we will discuss this in greater detail in a later section.

Because there are several diseases occurring simultaneously, and there are several things happening in the lungs at the same time.

  • Due to emphysema, the alveoli become damaged. The alveoli are the tiny air sacs of the lungs. These air sacs become stretched out, making it more difficult for air exchange. Old air gets trapped inside the alveoli, meaning that there is no room for new air.
  • Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation of the bronchial airways of the lungs. This inflammation damages the cilia (the tiny, hair-like structures of the airways that sweep mucus up, which ultimately keep the airways clean), so without the cilia, your body cannot cough up mucus.
  • Refractory asthma causes breathing issues in general. This type of asthma does not respond well to medications. Asthma causes the bronchial airways to tighten up; asthma medications are designed to reduce this tightening. With refractory asthma, do not work as expected.

So, rather than saying the person has all three of the mentioned above lung disorders, the term “COPD” was created.

What Are the Symptoms of COPD?

Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing are the hallmark symptoms of COPD. However, you can have COPD without these symptoms – which is why COPD is often undiagnosed for many years.

Other symptoms of COPD include:

  • Frequent coughing (with or without mucus production)
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Increased breathlessness
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
While there are more symptoms of COPD, examples including depression/anxiety or weakness, the ones noted above are the most common symptoms seen in people who are living with COPD.

What Causes COPD?

The most prominent cause of COPD is smoking; smoking accounts for 85 to 90 percent of all COPD cases.

On the note of COPD and smoking – female smokers are 13 times more likely to die from COPD than their non-smoking counterparts. While men are not immune – males are 12 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers.

By now, we know that smoking has a heavy correlation with lung disorders, along with all a myriad of other chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and certain cancers. But why does smoking cause all of these health conditions?

When a cigarette burns, it creates 7,000 chemicals – most of these chemicals are harmful to the body. Specific to COPD, these chemicals “weaken your lungs’ defense against infections, narrow air passages, cause swelling in air tubes and destroy air sacs—all contributing factors for COPD.”

What Causes COPD in Nonsmokers?

Although smoking is the most common cause of COPD, we also know that COPD sometimes occurs in nonsmokers.

Here are some of the causes of COPD in nonsmokers:

  • Environmental exposure can increase the risk of developing COPD. For example, long-term exposure to dust, secondhand smoke, air pollution, and certain fumes and chemicals are known environmental causes.
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is a rare cause of COPD. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein that is protective of the lungs. Some people have a genetic condition that causes them to be deficient in alpha-1 antitrypsin; this deficiency typically causes COPD.

Next page: What increases your risk of COPD? How is COPD diagnosed? And more.

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