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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of serious lung diseases that include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD can cause coughing with, or without large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms. When COPD is severe, it can cause long-term disability and death. Lower respiratory diseases, which include COPD, are the 4th leading cause of death in the United States and in New Mexico.

In COPD, less air flows in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following:

COPD effects in the lung
  • The airways and air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged lose their elastic quality.
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed.
  • The airways make more mucus than usual and can become clogged.

COPD develops slowly. Symptoms often worsen over time and can limit the ability to do routine activities. Severe COPD may prevent people from doing even basic activities like walking, cooking, or taking care of themselves. COPD has no cure; doctors don't know how to reverse the damage to the airways and lungs. However, COPD is often preventable and treatable. Treatments and lifestyle changes can help affected people feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease. Early detection of COPD is key to successful treatment. Knowing the symptoms or exposures to risk factors may lead to early diagnosis of COPD.

Learn about COPD causes and risk factors

By far, the largest risk factor for COPD is smoking; Up to 75 percent of people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Occupational exposures, (vapor, dust, gas or fumes) may account for about 15% of COPD but 25% of COPD among those who have never smoked. Other environmental factors include exposure to motor vehicle exhaust and exposure to burning of biomass (e.g., cooking over wood stoves). Other factors include frequent respiratory infections in childhood and having Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a rare genetic disorder. As of 2014, 15.7 million Americans reported having physician-diagnosed COPD, however it is a common belief that COPD often goes undiagnosed. There are also large racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender biases in COPD prevalence. In 2013, the following U.S. groups were more likely to report having COPD:
  • Women
  • People aged 65 to 74 years and over 75 years
  • American Indians/Alaska Natives and multiracial non-Hispanics
  • People who were unemployed, retired, or unable to work
  • People with less than a high school education
  • People who were divorced, widowed, or separated
  • Current or former smokers
  • People with a history of asthma.

Tips for managing COPD

  • Quit smoking and keep your home smoke free.
  • Visit your doctor regularly. Let your provider know if any of your symptoms change over time.
  • Protect yourself from germs that can affect the lungs. Talk with your doctor about which vaccines to get, including for flu (influenza) and pneumonia.
  • Prepare for disease flare-ups. Know when and where to seek help for your symptoms. Get emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking.
  • Pay attention to air quality outdoors. Limit your time outside when pollution levels are high and during wildland fire smoke events.
  • Pay attention to air quality indoors. High pollutant levels inside the home can make breathing harder for people with COPD. Don't let others smoke in your home. Limit cooking methods that create smoke or fumes. Don't overuse harsh cleaning products.
Smoke from fires can make COPD worse.