COPD Update

Editor’s Note: November is COPD Awareness Month, and this respiratory condition is something everyone should know more about. It is the third leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 120,000 people per year, and up to 12 million adults may have it and not know it. Here, experts from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), one of the National Institutes of Health, explain what you need to know about this deadly condition:

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is a serious lung disease that over time, makes it hard to breathe. You may also have heard COPD called other names, like emphysema or chronic bronchitis. In people who have COPD, the airways—tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs—are partially blocked, which makes it hard to get air in and out.

When COPD is severe, shortness of breath and other symptoms of COPD can get in the way of even the most basic tasks, such as doing light housework, taking a walk, even washing and dressing.


Most people who are at risk for getting COPD have never even heard of it and, in many cases, don’t even realize that the condition has a name. Some of the things that put you at risk for COPD include:


COPD most often occurs in people age 40 and over with a history of smoking (either current or former smokers), although as many as one out of six people with COPD never smoked. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD-it accounts for as many as nine out of ten COPD-related deaths.

Environmental Exposure

COPD can also occur in people who have had long-term exposure to lung irritants, like certain chemicals, dust, or fumes in the workplace. Heavy or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or other air pollutants may also contribute to COPD.

Genetic Factors

In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT, deficiency. While very few people know they have AAT deficiency, it is estimated that close to 100,000 Americans have it. People with AAT deficiency can get COPD even if they have never smoked or had long-term exposure to harmful pollutants.


The “airways” are the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs through the nose and mouth. Healthy airways and air sacs in the lungs are elastic—they try to bounce back to their original shape after being stretched or filled with air, just the way a new rubber band or balloon does. This elastic quality helps retain the normal structure of the lung and helps to move the air quickly in and out.

In people with COPD, the air sacs no longer bounce back to their original shape. The airways can also become swollen or thicker than normal, and mucus production might increase. The floppy airways are blocked, or obstructed, making it even harder to get air out of the lungs.

Symptoms of COPD include:

Constant coughing, sometimes called “smoker’s cough”

Shortness of breath while doing activities you used to be able to do

Excess sputum production


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