Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2006;73(4):677-679

See related article on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD, for short) is a lung disease that causes you to have less air when you breathe. There are two main illnesses in COPD: chronic bronchitis (say: bron-KIE-tiss) and emphysema (say: em-fa-SEE-ma).

Your lungs have two main parts: bronchial tubes (also called airways) and air sacs (see drawing). When you breathe in, air moves through your airways and into your air sacs. Oxygen goes into your blood from your air sacs.

If you have chronic bronchitis, the lining in your airways gets red and full of mucus. This blocks your airways and makes it 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.

What causes COPD?

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Sometimes things in the air that you breathe can cause COPD. Construction workers and miners are two examples of people whose jobs make it more likely for them to get COPD. Ask your doctor if you think you are breathing in things at work that might make it hard to breathe.

How do I know if I have COPD?

People with COPD usually cough up mucus and have trouble breathing. If you have these problems for a long time, and if you smoke or used to smoke, you might have COPD. Your doctor can tell you if you have COPD by asking you questions and examining you. You also may need special tests.

What can I do about my COPD?

There is no cure for COPD, but there are things you can do to feel better. If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is quit. This can stop or at least slow down the damage to your lungs. Try not to be around people who are smoking. Stay away from things in the air that can make you sick (for example, dust or chemicals). Your doctor can give you medicine to make you feel better.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Lung Association

American Thoracic Society

Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease

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