Smoking and COPD
- The airways and tiny air sacs in the lungs lose their ability to stretch and shrink back.
- The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.
- The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed (irritated and swollen).
- The airways make more mucus than usual, which can clog them and block air flow.
In the early stages of COPD, there may be no symptoms, or you may only have mild symptoms, such as:5
- A nagging cough (often called "smoker's cough")
- Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
- Wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe)
- Tightness in the chest
As the disease gets worse, symptoms may include:5
- Having trouble catching your breath or talking
- Blue or gray lips and/or fingernails (a sign of low oxygen levels in your blood)
- Trouble with mental alertness
- A very fast heartbeat
- Swelling in the feet and ankles
- Weight loss
How severe your symptoms are depends on the extent of lung damage. If you keep smoking, the damage will get worse faster than if you stop smoking.5 Among 15 million U.S. adults with COPD, 39% continue to smoke.6
COPD most often occurs in people age 40 and older with a history of smoking (either current or former smokers). However, as many as one out of six people with COPD never smoked.2
Smoking during childhood and teenage years can slow how lungs grow and develop. This can increase the risk of developing COPD in adulthood.7
The best way to prevent COPD is to never start smoking, and if you smoke, quit. Talk with your health care provider about programs and products that can help you quit. Also, stay away from secondhand smoke, which is smoke in the air from other people smoking.8
Quitting smoking is the most important first step you can take to treat COPD. Avoiding secondhand smoke is also critical. Other lifestyle changes and treatments include one or more of the following:9
- For people with COPD who have trouble eating because of shortness of breath or being tired—a special meal plan with smaller, more frequent meals; resting before eating; and/or taking vitamins and nutritional supplements
- A special activity plan to help strengthen the muscles used for breathing
- Medicines such as:
- A bronchodilator to relax the muscles around the airways. This helps open airways and makes breathing easier. Most bronchodilators are taken with a device called an inhaler.
- An inhaled steroid to reduce swelling in the airways.
- Oxygen therapy, which can help people who have severe COPD and low levels of oxygen in their blood to breathe better
- Surgery for people who have severe symptoms that have not improved with other treatments
- Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS): Surgery to remove diseased parts of the lung so healthier lung tissue can work better. LVRS is not a cure for COPD.
- A lung transplant: Surgery in which one or two healthy lungs from a donor are put in the patient’s body to replace diseased lungs. A lung transplant is a last resort.
Even though there is no cure for COPD, these lifestyle changes and treatments can help you breathe easier, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.9
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Report of the Surgeon General. How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What It Means to You. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010 [accessed 2014 Jan 10].
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. COPD: Are You at Risk? [PDF - 960.81KB] [last updated 2011 Sept; accessed 2014 Jan 10].
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Does COPD Affect Breathing? [accessed 2014 Jan 14].
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Is COPD? [last updated 2013 July 31; accessed 2014 Jan 10].
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD? [last updated 2013 July 31; accessed 2014 Jan 10].
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Among Adults—United States, 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2012;61(46):938–43 [accessed 2014 Jan 10].
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Report of the Surgeon General. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: We CAN Make the Next Generation Tobacco-Free. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health [accessed 2014 Jan 10].
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Can COPD Be Prevented? [last updated 2013 July 31; accessed 2014 Jan 10].
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Is COPD Treated? [last updated 2013 July 31; accessed 2014 Jan 10].
Michael, who’s been diagnosed with COPD, has found it harder and harder to breathe
"Every cell in my body was screaming to me that I was suffocating to death and I was going to die. Losing your breath is losing your life force."
- Page last reviewed: March 13, 2015
- Page last updated: March 13, 2015
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