What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive, non-contagious lung disease in which the airways of the lungs become damaged, making 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 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 affects 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 (stretchy). 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 develops slowly and has no cure

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 or getting dressed.

COPD develops slowly, and it may be many years before a person notices its symptoms, such as feeling short of breath. Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed in middle-aged or older people.

There is no cure for COPD. The damage to your airways and lungs chttp://www.lung.org/support-and-community/annot be reversed, but there are things you can do to control the disabling effects of the disease.

Help for those with COPD and their caregivers

If you are caring for someone with COPD, the American Lung Association has online community support and resources to help coordinate care. Go to http://www.lung.org/support-and-community/ to learn more!


Information courtesy of National Institutes of Health (NIH)

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