Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Symptoms, Diagnosis & More

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease which is commonly known as COPD is a term used for a collection of lung diseases that include chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease. People suffering from this condition have a difficult time breathing primarily because of the narrowing of the airways which is called airflow obstruction.

Signs and Symptoms

The usual symptoms of COPD are increasing* breathlessness especially when active, a persistent cough that produces phlegm and recurrent chest infections. The condition usually develops over a number of years and many people are not even aware that they have COPD. It usually only becomes noticeable when the person is older than 35 years of age, but most people diagnosed with the condition are older than 50 years of age. A simple breathing test may be necessary if you are a middle-aged smoker or ex-smoker who has a recurrent chesty cough that produces phlegm (especially in the morning after getting up from bed). The other signs of COPD may include weight loss*, fatigue and swollen ankles.

COPD Signs and Symptoms

Causes and Risk Factors

A person is most likely to get COPD due to breathing in something that irritates the lungs for prolonged periods of time. The 5 most common causes of COPD are as follows:

  • Smoking – Smoking cigarettes is by far the most common cause of COPD. It can also be acquired from other tobacco products like cigar and pipe smoke especially when the smoke is breathed in.
  • Second Hand Smoke – Even non-smokers can get COPD due to living with a smoker and breathing in the smoke regularly.
  • Pollution and Fumes – Air pollution can also cause COPD. If your work entails breathing in chemical fumes, toxic substances or dust then this can also cause COPD in the long run.
  • Genes – Approximately 3 in 100 people who have COPD have a certain DNA defect that causes problems in how the lung works. The defect is called AAT deficiency which involves not having enough of a particular protein that protects the lungs from damage which can lead to severe COPD.
  • Asthma – This is not common, but asthma can eventually lead to COPD. If asthma is not treated, it can eventually lead to lifetime lung damage.
Smoking Asthma

The risk factors for COPD include the following:

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke
  • People with asthma who smoke
  • Occupational exposure to dust and chemicals
  • Age
  • Genetics

Types of COPD

There are many types of COPD, but there are two main types which are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is the most common type of COPD which involves damage to the air sacs of the lungs causing their enlargement which can lead to them bursting. Damage of such area makes it difficult to expel air from the lungs leading to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body. Chronic bronchitis causes irritation and inflammation of the airways which are the tubes in the lungs where air passes through. This causes thick mucus to form which eventually plugs the airways and makes it difficult to breathe.

Tests and Diagnosis

COPD is commonly misdiagnosed wherein ex-smokers are often diagnosed with the condition although they just have another less common condition involving the lungs. Similarly, people who have COPD may not be diagnosed until the disease has advanced, and interventions are not as effective. The tests for diagnosing COPD may include one or more of the following:

  • Pulmonary Function Tests – The most common is spirometry which measures how much air the lungs can hold and how fast the person can blow the air out. Spirometry can detect COPD even before other symptoms are experienced.
  • Chest X-ray – This can show emphysema which is one of the primary causes of COPD. It can also rule out other lung problems.
  • CT scan – This can also help detect emphysema and determine if the patient may benefit from COPD surgery. It can also be used to help screen for lung cancer.
  • Arterial Blood Gas Analysis – This is a blood test that measures how well the lungs bring oxygen to the blood and remove* carbon dioxide.

Related Video – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Patients and Everyday Activities

Treatments and Medications

There are different treatments for all types and stages of the disease which may include lifestyle changes, medications and therapies. You can reduce* your risk of complications by making lifestyle changes. The most crucial step in treating COPD is to stop smoking and avoid other potentially harmful air pollutants like dust and chemicals. Remember to avoid exposure even to second hand smoke.

There are many medications for treating COPD together with its symptoms and complications. The common medications used are bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, combination inhalers, oral steroids, antibiotics and theophylline. The common lung therapies are oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation program. The combination of drugs and therapies depend on the particular case of the patient.

Precautions and Self Care

If you are worried about getting COPD, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from the disease. If you are a smoker, stop smoking. This is the most important thing you can do to improve* your health if you are a smoker. Even second hand smoke can cause COPD so help family members, and friends quit the deadly habit. You should also be aware of other dangers like dust and fumes which you may be regularly exposed to from commuting or your work environment. If you suspect that you have COPD, you need to consult your doctor immediately for the appropriate treatment. Take note that the condition becomes more difficult to treat* as it progresses.


Unlike most diseases, COPD has a particular cause and clear path of prevention. Most cases are directly related to cigarette smoking which is another among plenty of reasons to stop smoking cigarettes and avoid cigarette smoke. This may be difficult for people who have been smoking for a long time, but there are many methods available today to help anyone quit smoking. Since exposure to dust and chemical fumes is another primary risk factor for the disease, you need to protect yourself especially if the exposure is due to your work. There is respiratory protective equipment available which can protect you.


  • Vestbo, Jørgen (2013). “Definition and Overview”. Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. pp. 1–7.
  • Decramer M, Janssens W, Miravitlles M (April 2012). “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease”. Lancet 379 (9823): 1341–51. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60968-9. PMID 22314182.
  • Nathell L, Nathell M, Malmberg P, Larsson K (2007). “COPD diagnosis related to different guidelines and spirometry techniques”. Respir. Res. 8 (1): 89.
  • doi:10.1186/1465-9921-8-89. PMC 2217523. PMID 18053200.

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Expert Author : Dr. Ahmed Zayed (Consumer Health Digest)

Dr. Ahmed Zayed Helmy holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. He has completed his degree in 2011 at the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed believes in providing knowledgeable information to readers. Other than his passion for writing, currently he is working as a Plastic surgeon and is doing his masters at Ain shams University.

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