Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is COPD?

If you feel short of breath more and more frequently, ask your doctor about Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a chronic, progressive lung disease, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma and other obstructive airway disease. This group of lung diseases make it harder to breathe when airflow is blocked. People who suffer from COPD becoming increasingly breathless. This condition is progressive and there is currently no cure. The most common contributors to COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

How common is COPD?

COPD affects an estimated 24 million individuals in the U.S., and more than half of them do not know it. Early screening can identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs. The main cause for COPD is smoking, however, non-smokers can get COPD too even if they have never been exposed to irritants. A genetic condition called Aplha-1 Deficiency is an inherited form of COPD where there is a deficiency in the protein that protects the lungs. 


Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants, including smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.) and second-hand smoke. Fumes, chemicals and dust found in many work environments may be contributing factors. Genetics can also play a role—even if you never smoked or were exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace. There are cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in nonsmokers and in people who have never smoked. Anything that inflames the tubes that carry oxygen to the lungs or that damages the air sacs in the lungs can lead to COPD.


People with COPD may experience symptoms that progress over time. COPD symptoms usually do not occur right away. Rather, symptoms often only occur after significant damage to your lungs. Smoking can lead to COPD exacerbation.

Potential early signs of COPD:

  • Coughing
  • Excessive mucus
  • Feeling tired
  • Trouble breathing

Risk Factors for COPD

 In addition to smoking there are a few other risk factors that can contribute to the development of COPD. These risk factors include:

  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Working in areas with fumes from chemicals, dust or other irritants to the airways
  • A history of childhood respiratory illnesses or infections
  • Alpha-1 Deficiency, genetic condition
  • Excessive exposure to air pollutants

How is COPD Diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask for a detailed medical history including family history of any illnesses or diseases. Your doctor will want to know if you have been a smoker before or have ever been exposed to secondhand smoke, work in an atmosphere with fumes or chemicals, such as a nail salon or manufacturing facility. You will also be asked to describe your symptoms, such as shortness of breath, weight loss, blue fingertips or lips, chronic cough, etc. It is important to tell your doctor all your symptoms, even if you don't think they are directly related to COPD as they may be an indicator of a co-morbidity that can lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease symptoms or be a possible risk factor.

In addition to that you doctor will perform a physical exam and order laboratory tests to help with diagnosis and severity of your condition. Laboratory tests can include:

Spirometry: Commonly used to test for asthma, a spirometry test is a mouthpiece you blow air from your lungs into to measure how much air and how fast you can blow into it. A board-certified pulmonologist will review the results to share with your primary care physician.

Chest X-Ray: A chest x-ray can assist a physician in making a diagnose for COPD or other airway conditions like emphysema and bronchitis.

CT Scan: CT or CAT scan stands for computerized axial tomography, and uses an X-ray tube that travels 360 degrees around your body while gathering information from multiple views to create cross-sectional images of certain organs (in this case, the lungs).

Arterial Blood Gas Test: Blood is measure to determine the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide as this can aid in determining how well the lungs are delivering blood to all organs in the body.


There is no cure for COPD. However, several chronic obstructive pulmonary disease treatments are available. Treatment generally includes medication, surgery, and lifestyle changes.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease medication:

  • Antibiotics — Antibiotics help treat infections and prevent the progression of COPD.
  • Steroids — Steroids can be inhaled or taken orally. Inhaled steroids reduce airway swelling. A short course of oral steroids can help prevent COPD from getting worse.
  • Bronchodilators — This medication is often inhaled. Bronchodilators reduce muscle constriction and decrease coughing for improved breathing.
  • Combination inhalers — Your doctor may give you an inhaler that provides both steroids and bronchodilators.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease surgery:

  • Bullectomy — A bullectomy is when doctors remove a hole in your lungs called bullae. This procedure can help your breathing to improve.
  • Lung volume reduction — In this surgery, your doctor will remove small pieces of the upper part of your lungs that are not healthy. The remaining healthy lung then expands to improve breathing.
  • Lung transplant — A lung transplant is replacing a diseased or damaged lung with a healthy lung. A lung transplant can include lifelong medication to suppress your immune system.

COPD Lung therapies:

  • Oxygen therapy — If you don't have enough oxygen in your blood, you may need to use supplemental oxygen. There are different devices that can deliver oxygen to your body. Some individuals use oxygen therapy continuously, while others only use it during certain activities such as sleeping.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation — Pulmonary rehabilitation includes counseling, education, nutrition, and physical exercise. 

COPD lifestyle changes:

  • Breathing control — Your doctor or respiratory therapist may teach you breathing techniques to conserve energy and relax.
  • Exercise — Moderate exercise can help fortify your respiratory muscles.
  • Nutrition — Eating healthy foods can improve your overall strength and endurance.
  • Clear airways — Regularly clearing mucus out of your airways can improve your breathing. You can help clear mucus by using a humidifier, by drinking water, and by intentionally coughing.
  • Avoid smoke — If you smoke, consider quitting. You can also avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid pollution — Avoid exposure to air pollution that can aggravate your lungs.
  • Regular doctor visits — Consistently monitoring your lung function can help your doctor customize the most effective treatment plan for you.

Check out the COPD Assessment Test.


It’s important to be tested, so you can start treatment before you lose any more lung function. Ask your doctor about pulmonary testing or find a Pulmonologist at Baptist Health.

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