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What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease in which the airways of the lungs become damaged, making it hard to breathe. COPD is also identified by other names, such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis. In people who have COPD, the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs are partially blocked, making it difficult to get air in and out. COPD is a major cause of death and illness throughout the world. It kills more than 120,000 Americans each year. That’s one death every 4 minutes.

How COPD affect the airways

The “airways” are the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs through the nose and mouth. The airways of the lungs branch out like an upside-down tree. At the end of each branch are many small, balloon-like air sacs. In healthy people, the airways and air sacs are elastic. When you breathe in, each air sac fills up with air, like a small balloon, and when you breathe out, the balloon deflates and the air goes out.

In people with COPD, the airways and air sacs lose their shape and become floppy. Less air gets in and less air goes out of the airways because:

  • The airways and air sacs lose their elasticity like an old rubber band.
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed or swollen.
  • Cells in the airways make more mucus or sputum than usual, which tends to clog the airways.

COPD is not contagious. You cannot catch it from someone else.

COPD can impairs normal activities

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, and even washing and dressing one’s self.

COPD is often diagnosed later in life

COPD develops slowly, and it can be many years before symptoms like feeling short of breath are noticeable. Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed when sufferers are middle-aged or older.

There is no cure

There is no cure for COPD. The damage to the airways and lungs cannot be reversed, but there are things that can be done to control the disabling effects of the disease. Talk to a physician to learn more.


Information courtesy of National Library of Medicine (NLM)

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