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What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma.

What causes COPD?

In the United States, tobacco smoke is a key factor in the development and progression of COPD1, although exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic factors, and respiratory infections also play a role. In the developing world, indoor air quality is thought to play a larger role in the development and progression of COPD than it does in the United States.

Who has COPD?

Chronic lower respiratory disease, primarily COPD, was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2011.2 Fifteen million Americans report that they have been diagnosed with COPD.3 More than 50% of adults with low pulmonary function were not aware that they had COPD4; therefore the actual number may be higher. The following groups were more likely to report COPD:3

  • People aged 65–74 years.
  • Non-Hispanic whites.
  • Women.
  • Individuals who were unemployed, retired, or unable to work.
  • Individuals with less than a high school education.
  • People with lower incomes.
  • Individuals who were divorced, widowed, or separated.
  • Current or former smokers.
  • Those with a history of asthma.

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Avoid inhaling tobacco smoke, home and workplace air pollutants, and respiratory infections to prevent developing COPD. Early detection of COPD might change its course and progress. A simple test, called spirometry can be used to measure pulmonary—or lung—function and detect COPD in anyone with breathing problems.4

How is COPD treated?

Treatment of COPD requires a careful and thorough evaluation by a physician. 4,5 COPD treatment can alleviate symptoms, decrease the frequency and severity of exacerbations, and increase exercise tolerance. For those who smoke, the most important aspect of treatment is smoking cessation. Avoiding tobacco smoke and removing other air pollutants from the patient’s home or workplace are also important. Symptoms such as coughing or wheezing can be treated with medication.6 Pulmonary rehabilitation is an individualized treatment program that teaches COPD management strategies to increase quality of life. Plans may include breathing strategies, energy-conserving techniques, and nutritional counseling. The flu can cause serious problems in people with COPD. Vaccination during flu season is recommended and respiratory infections should be treated with antibiotics, if appropriate. Patients who have low blood oxygen levels are often given supplemental oxygen.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Annual smoking-attributable mortality, years of potential life lost, and productivity losses—United States, 1997–2001. MMWR. 2005;54(250):625-628.
  2. Hoyert DL, Xu JQ. Deaths: preliminary data for 2011. Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2012;61(6):1-65. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.2012.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among adults—United States, 2011. MMWR. 2012;61(46):938-943.
  4. Mannino DM, Gagnon RC, Petty TL, Lydick E. Obstructive lung disease and low lung function in adults in the United States: data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1988-1994. Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:1683-1689.
  5. Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, Weinberger SE, et al. Diagnosis and management of stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a clinical practice guideline update from the American College of Physicians, American College of Chest Physicians, American Thoracic Society, and European Respiratory Society. Annals Intern Med. 2011;155:179-191.
  6. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease; 2011. http://goldcopd.org/uploads/users/files/GOLD_Report_2011_Feb21.pdf [PDF - 109KB] Accessed August 2012.

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