Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease involving obstructed airflow to the lungs. It is caused by long-term exposure to irritating gas or particulate matter. A common catalyst is cigarette smoke. People suffering from COPD are at increased risk of developing heart disease and lung cancer.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease COPD

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

The main cause of COPD is smoking tobacco. However, in the developing world, COPD often occurs when people are exposed to fumes from burning fuel, or from cooking in poorly ventilated homes. One in 20-30% of chronic smokers have the possibility of developing COPD, though many smokers may develop reduced lung function without COPD.

Types of COPD

COPD is treatable with proper management. Many people with COPD can achieve symptom control with a good quality of life with a lowered risk of developing an associated condition. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the most common conditions that contribute to COPD, though they are vastly different in presentation and severity.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is chronic inflammation of the lining in the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the alveoli of the lungs. This condition is characterized by a frequent or daily cough and excessive mucus production. In many cases, coughing and excessive mucus production may last three months to two years before being treated.


Emphysema involves destruction of the alveoli at the bronchioles, resulting in damaging exposure to smoke inhalation and particulate matter. Symptoms may not appear until significant lung damage is sustained and will gradually worsen over time. Small airways begin to collapse when you exhale, impairing airflow out of the lungs.

Who Is at Risk for COPD?

In the vast majority of cases, tobacco use is the primary catalyst in COPD. However, genetic susceptibility also plays a role. 1% of people with COPD may develop the disease from a genetic disorder called AAt deficiency; this is described as being low in a protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin. This is made in the liver and secreted into the bloodstream, which protects the lungs. For persons with this condition, treatment options are the same for more traditional COPD diagnosis.

What Are the Symptoms of COPD?

COPD is often painful or uncomfortable. Many patients report pain, coughing, and mucus for a long period of time before their diagnosis. A chronic cough is developed from constantly trying to clear the airways as they gradually become inflamed and narrowed.

For both conditions, symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Tightness of chest
  • Clearing throat excessively in the morning
  • Chronic, mucusy cough
  • Cyanosis of the lips or fingernails
  • Respiratory infections
  • Lethargy
  • Unintended weight loss

Treatments for COPD

Treatment is designed to ease symptoms and prevent complications while slowing the progression of the disease. Bronchodilators are a common form of defense and disease management, widening the airways to allow for easier breathing. They are typically taken through use of an inhaler or a nebulizer. Glucocorticosteroids are often added to this routine to reduce inflammation.

In order to reduce risk of other respiratory infections, ask your doctor if the yearly flu shot, pneumococcal vaccine, or tetanus booster are right for you and your condition. If your blood oxygen is low, you will receive supplemental oxygen by way of mask or nasal cannula. In some cases, the need for surgery is indicated.

A bullectomy may be ordered to remove abnormal air spaces, called bullae, from the lungs, in order to provide relief. Lung reductions are also performed, removing damaged lung tissue. Finally, lung transplants may be required in more severe cases.

COPD Explained: Read More on AMA Blog

Learn about risk factors, treatments, medications, and watch a video about diagnosing COPD.

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AMA medical group was founded to support every member of the community. If you have chronic bronchitis or emphysema and suspect you may be developing COPD, don’t hesitate to contact us at (727) 331-8740 to schedule an appointment.

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