What is COPD?
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. Progressive means the disease gets worse over time.
COPD can cause coughing that produces large amounts of a slimy substance called mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms.
COPD can often be prevented. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. However, up to 25 percent of people with COPD never smoked. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants—such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dusts—also may contribute to COPD. A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency can also cause the disease.
Long-term exposure to lung irritants that damage the lungs and the airways usually is the cause of COPD.
In the United States, the most common irritant that causes COPD is cigarette smoke. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke also can cause COPD, especially if the smoke is inhaled.
Breathing in secondhand smoke, which is in the air from other people smoking; air pollution; or chemical fumes or dusts from the environment or workplace also can contribute to COPD.
Rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) may play a role in causing COPD. People who have this condition have low blood levels of AAT—a protein made in the liver. Having a low level of the AAT protein can lead to lung damage and COPD if you are exposed to smoke or other lung irritants. If you have alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and also smoke, COPD can worsen very quickly.
Some people who have asthma can develop COPD. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Treatment usually can reverse the inflammation and narrowing that occurs in asthma.
COPD is a major cause of disability, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Currently, 16 million people are diagnosed with COPD. Many more people may have the disease and not even know it.
COPD develops slowly. Symptoms often worsen over time and can limit your ability to do routine activities. Severe COPD may prevent you from doing even basic activities like walking, cooking, or taking care of yourself.
Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed in middle-aged or older adults. The disease is not contagious, meaning it cannot be passed from person to person.
COPD is the result of damage to the lungs from smoking cigarettes or by breathing in second-hand smoke or other lung irritants—such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dusts. COPD has no cure yet, and doctors do not know how to reverse the damage to the lungs. However, treatments and lifestyle changes can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.
Prevent Complications and Slow the Progression of COPD
If you have COPD, the most important step you can take is to quit smoking. Quitting can help prevent complications and slow the progression of the disease. You also should avoid exposure to the lung irritants mentioned above.
Follow your treatments for COPD exactly as your doctor prescribes. They can help you breathe easier, stay more active, and avoid or manage severe symptoms.
Talk with your doctor about whether and when you should get flu, or influenza, and pneumonia vaccines. These vaccines can lower your chances of getting these illnesses, which are major health risks for people who have COPD.
For more information visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
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