Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2007;76(8):1151-1152

See related article on COPD.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a lung disease that makes it hard for you to breathe. Over time, your lungs become irritated or damaged. Mucus may block the airways. This makes it hard for air to get through. The air sacs in the lungs may become stiff and unable to hold enough air.

Who gets COPD and why?

COPD is usually caused by smoking. It takes time to develop. Most people with COPD are smokers older than 40 years. But younger people can also get it. You may be at risk if you have been exposed to fumes, smoke, or dust for a long time.

How do I know if I have COPD?

COPD develops slowly, so you could have it for many years before you notice symptoms. The most common symptoms are coughing, wheezing, and being short of breath (feeling like you cannot get enough air). If you have a cough or wheeze for at least three months, you may have COPD. But cough or shortness of breath that lasts a long time can also be caused by other diseases, such as allergies, asthma, cancer, and heart problems.

How can my doctor tell if I have COPD?

Your doctor may do a test called spirometry (speh-ROM-eh-tree). In this test you will breathe hard into a machine to measure how well you can breathe.

How is COPD treated?

There is no cure for COPD. The damage to your airways and lungs cannot be undone. But there are things you can do to feel better and slow the damage. Most importantly, you should quit smoking. Ask your doctor to help you with this.

Your doctor may give you medicines that you breathe into your lungs. Medicines called bronchodilators (bron-ko-DYE-lay-tors) relax the muscle around your airways to help air get through. Medicines called steroids help stop the irritation in your airways. Extra oxygen can help if you have very bad COPD. Contact your doctor right away if your symptoms suddenly get worse.

What should I do if I have COPD?

If you have COPD, follow these steps:

  1. Quit smoking. If you don't quit, you will keep damaging your lungs. Even secondhand smoke can make your symptoms worse.

  2. 2. Exercise every day. You can start by walking 20 minutes a day. Ask your doctor to help you make an exercise plan.

  3. 3. Eat a healthful diet. If you are overweight, losing weight may help your symptoms. Ask your doctor to help you make a diet plan.

  4. 4. Take your medicines as directed. At least twice a year, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about how to take your medicines.

  5. 5. Get a flu shot every year and a pneumonia shot every 10 years.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

National Institutes of Health

Global Initiative for Chronic ObstructivePulmonary Disease

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