Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2001;64(4):621-622

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (also called COPD)?

COPD is a chronic lung disease. It blocks the large and small airways of your lungs (see picture below). COPD includes two main illnesses: chronic bronchitis and emphysema (say this: em-fa-see-ma). There is no cure for COPD.

Your lungs have two main parts: bronchial tubes (also called airways) and alveoli. Alveoli are also called air sacs. When you breathe in through your wind pipe, the air moves through your bronchial tubes and into your air sacs. From these sacs, oxygen goes into your blood while carbon dioxide moves out of your blood.

If you have chronic bronchitis, the lining in your bronchial tubes gets red and full of mucus. This mucus blocks your tubes. If you have blocked airways, it is hard to breathe.

If you have emphysema, your air sacs are irritated. They get stiff and can't hold enough air. This makes it hard for you to get oxygen into your blood and carbon dioxide out of your blood.

Who gets COPD?

About 14 million people in the United States have COPD. The disease develops over many years. It is almost always caused by cigarette smoking. The best way to keep your COPD from getting worse is to quit smoking.

How can I find out if I have COPD?

The most common signs of COPD are chronic coughing and shortness of breath. If you are a smoker and you cough and are short of breath on most days, you might have COPD.

Your doctor might give you a special test to see how well your lungs are working. In this test, you take deep breaths and then blow into a machine. The machine measures how deeply you can breathe and how fast you can move air in and out of your lungs.

You might also have a chest x-ray. The x-ray can show signs of COPD.

How is COPD treated?

If you have COPD, the most important thing you can do is to stop smoking. This can stop or at least slow the damage to your lungs.

Your doctor might also have you take some medicines to make you feel better and breathe more easily. These medicines might include antibiotics and some medicines that you inhale (breathe in).

To take inhaled medicines, you might use a small handheld cannister or you might use a nebulizer machine. You can carry the handheld inhaler with you. Some people call this kind of inhaler a “puffer.” You might use the inhaler several times a day.

A nebulizer machine turns liquid medicine into a vapor (like a cloud) that you can breathe. This machine is often used to treat people with more serious COPD. It also helps people who have trouble using handheld inhalers.

You might need to take steroids and antibiotics if you get a respiratory infection. Some people with more advanced COPD need to use oxygen. You breathe the oxygen through tubes that you put in your nose or through a mask that goes over your mouth and nose. Rehabilitation and exercise programs also may be helpful.

Patients with very serious COPD might have surgery. They might have a lung reduction operation or a lung transplant. These surgeries are usually done only in people who have not done well with other treatments.

I know I have COPD. Now what will happen?

If you have COPD, you might be more likely to get colds and flu. Because your heart can be strained, it will get bigger. You might have high pressure in the vessels that bring blood to your lungs.

If you quit smoking soon, you have a better chance of living longer and having a good quality of life.

Your doctor wants to help you quit smoking now. You might try using nicotine gum or a nicotine patch. You might take bupropion (brand name: Zyban) to help you quit. You might go to a smoking cessation class. Talk to your doctor about what you should do to quit smoking now.

If you have COPD, you should have a flu shot every year. You should also have a pneumonia shot. You are less likely to get flu or pneumonia if you have these shots.

Where can I learn more about COPD?

You can find out more about COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema by calling your local office of the American Lung Association (ALA); telephone: 1-800-586-4872. Or you can visit the ALA Web site at this address:

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Copyright © 2001 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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