A Comprehensive Guide to COPD

Updated: Jul 17, 2022

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) afflicts 16 million Americans, making it the fourth leading cause of death in the United States today, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). To put this in perspective, this is more than the entire population of Alabama, Connecticut, and Indiana combined.

Though this number is already a concern, the NHLBI goes on to say that it is actually probably much higher, because it’s suspected that millions of people are walking around daily with this particular health condition without even realizing they have it. That’s why COPD has been elevated to the status of being a major health issue that, consequently, has doubled since 1969.

COPD: A Major National Health Issue

On May 22, 2017, the NHLBI released its COPD National Action Plan, which they call a “blueprint” for patients, caregivers, health professionals, and policymakers. This plan was created so the country as a whole has something to follow to gain a greater hold on this far-too-common medical condition.

The NHLBI’s goal with this plan is to better educate the public and improve the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and management of this disease. It also hopes that the information provided enables the nation to take steps toward increasing research in this field, developing more comprehensive COPD care, and ultimately reducing the burden of this medical condition on the individuals and families it affects.

COPD afflicts16 million Americans, making it the fourth leading cause of death in the United States today.

But what exactly is COPD and why is it such a major concern?

What is COPD?

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which the COPD Foundation says is actually an “umbrella term” used to identify three primary progressive lung diseases: emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory (non-reversible) asthma.


The National Emphysema Foundation reports that roughly 3.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with emphysema, a condition that occurs when the walls between the lungs’ air sacs become damaged. This causes them to lose their shape, increase in size, and decrease in numbers, ultimately making it more difficult for the lungs to exchange gases effectively.

Chronic Bronchitis

Approximately 8.9 million people, or 3.7% of the population, have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in the last year alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Healthline adds that, while this is a serious condition in and of itself because it is an inflammation of the bronchial tube lining, many people with chronic bronchitis eventually end up developing emphysema.


Refractory Asthma

Research published in the journal Allergy describes refractory asthma as asthma that’s “poorly controlled…despite optimal therapy.” Approximately 17.4% of individuals have this type of asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, with an estimated 3.6% of adults reportedly having refractory asthma that is categorized as severe.

The main effect of this category of conditions is difficulty breathing, which typically increases over time and leaves those with COPD in constant search of relief. But how do you know if you have this disease?


How You Can Live Better With COPD

Avoid getting sick (and avoid people who are sick and germs as much as possible). Experts recommend getting your yearly flu vaccination, and making sure it’s the standard shot rather than a nasal spray vaccine. On top of that, they recommend getting the pneumonia vaccine at least once before age 65, with two booster doses at 65 or older.

On the subject of germs, make use of sanitized wipes wherever possible (grocery store, drug store, departments stores—anywhere that puts you in contact with other people’s germs). In most stores sani-wipes are provided, but it’s recommended that you carry some with you in your purse or car. Also make rigorous hand washing a part of your daily routine. Multiple times in the day.

Stress can exacerbate any type of diagnoses. While regular exercise, a healthy diet, and proper sleep are the best stress reducers within your control, it’s important to develop a mental strategy to deal with stress that is unavoidable.

Know that anxiety and depression are more common for people living with COPD than the general population. Recognize and acknowledge your emotional health and, like your mental strategy for stress, devise a treatment plan for your emotions. Anxiety and worry can cause panic attacks which result in shallow breathing or shortness of breath. Make sure to talk to your doctor and/or healthcare team, as well as your loved ones, about your moods.

Find community and connect with others who know what it’’s like to live with COPD. See if there is a COPD support group or a Better Breathers Club in your area, and look into online support communities like the Living with COPD Community. In addition you can call or email the Lung HelpLine to get free information and resources.

COPD Lifestyle Tips

Concentrated breathing exercises can help you conserve breath and maintain your activity. Whether you use a five-count break measure, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, or place your hands on your chest and stomach—find a breathing technique that works for you and practice it often.

Common COPD Symptoms

The American Lung Association reports that COPD symptoms are often ignored in their early stages because people believe that trouble breathing goes hand in hand with aging. However, this organization also stresses that “early detection of COPD is key to successful treatment,” so it urges anyone experiencing breathing-related symptoms to consult with their healthcare practitioners before they can become even more severe.

Some of the most common symptoms to watch for include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Repeat respiratory infections
  • Blue lips and/or fingernail beds
  • Fatigue
  • Increased mucus production

MedicineNet further explains that as the disease progresses, the symptoms do too. For instance, you may notice that you run out of breath faster when walking up a couple of stairs than you did a year ago, or that your extremities are beginning to swell.

It’s also possible that you’ll hear a crackling in the lungs when breathing in.

With regard to your breathing specifically, wheezing may also become more present with even minimal exertion. It’s also possible that you’ll hear a crackling in the lungs when breathing in or notice the appearance of louder breath sounds.

COPD Flare-Ups And Exacerbations

Individuals with COPD may also have periods of time where their symptoms seem to grow increasingly worse. Healthline explains that this is called COPD exacerbation, sometimes referred to simply as a flare-up.

In addition to damaging the lungs, these flare-ups can be deadly. When it’s harder to breathe, the body isn’t able to adequately expel carbon dioxide, and a build-up of this particular gas can ultimately take your life.

That’s why it’s so important to watch for things that can limit your carbon dioxide exhalation. This includes recognizing fast and shallow breathing patterns, shortness of breath, being overly tired or confused, increased mucus production, and experiencing more wheezing than normal. These are all potential signs of an exacerbation and are reason to seek immediate medical care.

The Psychological Impact Of COPD

While COPD is a physical disease affecting the lungs, research has discovered that this particular condition can affect a person psychologically as well.

One study found that individuals with this disease have higher rates of depression and anxiety than those who don’t have this lung-based disease. It even suggests that these rates are higher for those with COPD than for individuals with some other type of chronic disease.

Anxiety Studies show that those with COPD have a higher rate of depression and anxiety then those that don’t.

This research also found that female COPD patients tend to be affected the most psychologically. Additionally, if the disease has a higher severity, than the risk of anxiety and depression is higher, too.

Other potential risk factors identified in this study include living alone, being hospitalized with a flare-up, and impaired physical function. All of these can increase the likelihood that someone with COPD can become more depressed or anxious.

So, what causes COPD?

COPD Health Tips

Air Quality

Sometimes indoor air can have more toxins than the air outdoors. And since air quality can trigger breathlessness and other COPD issues, it’s important to ensure your household air is the best it can be. This can be achieved by using a high-efficiency particular air (HEPA) filter. Other tips include getting rid of wall-to-wall carpeting or giving them a thorough, deep cleaning.

Eating smaller meals through the day avoids the “too-full” feeling that lends itself to breathlessness which many COPD patients complain about. Eat to gain weight if that’s needed—several well-balanced, appropriate calories meals; or eat to lose weight—protein, vegetables, and fruit, avoiding high fat and high sugar foods and drinks.

Doctor Knows Best

Listen to your doctor and follow all and any advice. This includes medication, using oxygen, rest and relaxation, and keeping an eye on your symptoms.

Common COPD Causes

In its Pocket Guide to COPD Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention, the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) states that COPD is largely preventable because the number-one risk factor leading to the development of this health condition is smoking. Tobacco is the worst for damaging the lungs to this extent, according to GOLD, but smoking marijuana can contribute to COPD formation, too.

That’s not to say that non-smokers can’t get this disease, because they can and do. That’s because there are many other factors that can potentially contribute to the development of this set of lung-based diseases. GOLD calls this a “complex interplay” of a variety of issues, some of which include being exposed to higher levels of:

  • Indoor air pollution: Such as when using biomass fuels for cooking and heating a poorly ventilated home
  • Outdoor air pollution: While this appears to have little effect on the disease directly, exposure to outdoor pollutants can increase the overall burden on the lungs
  • Occupational pollutants: This includes being exposed to various dusts, chemical agents, and fumes while on the job

Additional COPD Risk Factors

There are more factors that can increase your risk of COPD, some of which you cannot change and/or have little to no control over. Among them are genetics, gender, age, and stunted lung growth (both pre- and post-birth).


Sometimes, our genes can increase our susceptibility to this disease. According to a study published in EMBO Molecular Medicine, genetic variants in the alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) gene serpin peptidase inhibitor, clade A, member 1 (SERPINA1) can lead to this health condition. Authors also add that many family-based studies (those involving parents, siblings, and children) have found a genetic link to COPD, further proving that genetics can play an important role in whether this disease develops.

COPD is largely preventable because the number-one risk factor leading to the development of this health condition is smoking.


Research has also found that women get COPD at a higher rate than men. One study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine suggests that this may be because men and women’s bodies respond differently to smoke and other pathogens, or that they have different levels of function in regard to the immune system and lungs. Interestingly, this study also points out that despite the fact that women are known to have a higher risk of this disease than men, on average males are correctly diagnosed with this condition by their doctors more often than females.


Research in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine reports that “COPD is commonly diagnosed after the age of 45, and is usually considered a disease of the elderly.” However, for smokers with AAT deficiency specifically, COPD development can occur much earlier, like in the person’s 20s. On the flip side, if few risk factors are present, the condition may not develop until much later, like in their 60s or 70s.

Stunted Lung Growth During Gestation And Early Childhood

In addition to gender, genetics, and age, “insults to the developing lung” during both gestation and in the first few years of life can also contribute to the development of COPD, according to research published in Therapeutic Advances in Respiratory Disease. This includes being exposed to cigarette smoke or other pollutants while in utero (which generally shows up in the form of low birth weight) and/or while very young (often increasing respiratory infection incidents), both of which can diminish a child’s lung function as he or she ages and open the door for COPD later in life.

COPD Elderlyman

COPD Treatment Options

As of right now, there is no known cure for COPD. However, there is a variety of treatment options that can help patients better manage their symptoms. These include medication-based therapies, pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy, and, in extreme cases, surgery.

Medication-Based Therapies

Different medications can help with managing the disease, according to the American Lung Association, and each serves a different purpose.

Emphysema is the No. 1 diagnosis behind lung transplants worldwide, accounting for 39% of these types of surgeries.


A bronchodilator is usually administered in the form of an inhaler. A beta2-agonist bronchodilator makes it easier to breathe by relaxing the muscles around the airway so they stay open, whereas an anticholinergic bronchodilator keeps airway-related muscles from getting too tight. Some of these bronchodilators work immediately (short-acting) and others take longer to kick in, but their effects last longer (long-acting).

Corticosteroids Or Steroids

Corticosteroids or steroids are anti-inflammatories help by reducing swelling and decreasing mucus production, and can be taken in either pill or inhaler form. However, they have the potential for creating negative side effects, so they’re usually monitored fairly closely.


Some medications prescribed for this condition are combination meds, which means that they contain both bronchodilators and corticosteroids. These typically come in inhaler or nebulizer form to provide the benefits of both types of medicine.


It’s also possible that your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. If you have COPD and develop a bacterial or viral infection, this helps ease the flare-up that infections like these can create. But it’s also important to take this type of medication as prescribed so that the infection doesn’t come back or develop a resistance and no longer work.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

COPD can also be treated with pulmonary rehabilitation. The COPD Foundation notes that this program offers “exercise, education, and support to help you learn to breathe and function at the highest level possible.”

Pulmonary rehabilitation teaches effective breathing techniques, how what you eat can impact your COPD, and ways to limit flare-ups or exacerbations. It also covers the mental aspects of this condition, such as how to deal with related depression and anxiety.

Oxygen Therapy

As one of the oldest types of treatment, oxygen therapy “was the first treatment shown to prolong life in people with COPD,” according to research published in the CHEST Journal. And it is still used quite often today to help patients with this disease—more than one million Medicare recipients utilize this therapy.

However, there are some questions as to how much it helps those with more moderate hypoxemia or lowers blood-oxygen levels. So, the CHEST Journal researchers say that more studies need to be conducted in this area to know for sure when and how oxygen therapy helps most.

Elderlyman Oxygen


In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to help with managing this disease. Medscape says that this option does come with risks, but also that it may be the best course of action if the patient is in end-stage COPD and not responding to other types of medical treatment.

The three types of related surgery are:


This procedure involves removing the bullae, which are the dilated air spaces in the lungs. As a result, it helps reduce airway resistance and increase the lung’s elastic recoil pressure, and move the diaphragm to a “more efficient position.”

Lung Volume Reduction Surgery

By surgically removing diseased parts of the lung, airflow can be improved (especially when breathing out), blood-oxygen can increase, and the diaphragm can often function more effectively.

Lung Transplant

Emphysema is the No. 1 diagnosis behind lung transplants worldwide, accounting for 39% of these types of surgeries. Medscape shares that this is an option in severe cases. Additionally, patients under the age of 65 are preferred, primarily because those over this age tend to have significant cardiac disease due to their prior smoking habits.

Elderlyman Surgery

Alternative COPD Treatments

Modern medicine isn’t the only option when it comes to treating COPD. In fact, some patients have found alternative ways to find relief from this particular disease.

For instance, in May 2018, the CHEST Journal published a study involving 120 patients who for a period of 12 weeks either engaged in pulmonary rehabilitation three times a week or participated in Tai Chi—“a Chinese recreational exercise” known to improve chronic disease symptoms—five times a week.

Upon conclusion of the study, it was discovered that Tai Chi was just as effective as pulmonary rehab. In fact, at 12 weeks post-study, the Tai Chi group had actually surpassed the pulmonary rehab in positive effects, highlighting just how powerful this alternative can potentially be long-term.

Other pieces of research have connected even more alternative treatment methods with COPD relief. These include studies related to acupuncturechiropractic, and the practicing of various relaxation techniques. Though each patient is different and what works for one may not work for another, some of these may be worth trying if you’re looking for more natural forms of relief.

At-Home Ways To Help Ease COPD Symptoms

The NHLBI reveals that there are many lifestyle changes individuals can make to help them better manage their COPD.

Here are a few to consider:

Quit Smoking

This is “the most important step you can take to treat COPD,” according to the NLHBI. However, if you’re struggling with quitting, the American Lung Association suggests that it helps to identify all of your reasons for wanting to quit so you stay motivated. And if you want or need help with achieving this goal, they have a couple of programs available. Freedom from Smoking uses techniques based on what works for you personally, and Quitter’s Circle offers online support.

Limit Your Exposure To Lung Irritants

According to research published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, you can do this by staying indoors on days when pollutants are higher outdoors. You can also limit your exposure to indoor lung irritants by avoiding the use of wood burning stoves and certain cleaners.

Stay Current On Your Vaccines

The flu vaccine and the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine are very important for those with COPD. These illnesses can cause serious issues for individuals with COPD, so keeping them at bay is critical to avoiding any further breathing issues or complications

Get Regular Physical Exercise

Admittedly, this suggestion may be more difficult due to the fact that COPD is characterized by difficulty breathing, but the NHLBI stresses that “physical activity can strengthen the muscles that help you breathe and improve your overall wellness.”

With this in mind, Cleveland Clinic says that the three best exercises for people with this condition are stretching, aerobic activity (walking, bicycling, or water aerobics), and strength training. Just be sure to talk to your doctor first to make sure the physical activity is safe for you based on the severity of your COPD and current level of fitness.

Close up look on retired women lunging at fitness club

COPD Technology Tips

Rescue Medications

Technology also comes in the form of inhalers and medications. Make sure to keep your rescue medications on hand and use them as needed. However, if you do find yourself using a rescue inhaler more than usual, let your doctor know.

Fitness Apps

Various fitness apps that you can use on your smartphone or tablet can help in maintaining and keeping up with your physical progression. My Fitness Pal, FitBit, ACTIVEx, and Lose It! are just a few available through your app store.

Cleanliness Is Next To Healthiness

Keep your breathing equipment clean, and clean them often. It doesn’t take much for pieces to get contaminated, mold, mildew, or bacteria which decrease their productiveness and usability, and in some cases can exacerbate the diagnoses.

Living with COPD

Living with this disease may be challenging at times, but it is possible to have a good quality life despite being diagnosed with this condition.

For instance, if you rely on oxygen tanks to breathe easier, there are portable oxygen solutions that you can use to help you breathe better while on the go. For instance, Inogen offers small, lightweight (2.8 pounds) portable oxygen concentrators that provide individuals with COPD the freedom to run errands and travel without worrying about carting around heavy tanks or stressing about oxygen refills.

Also, Cleveland Clinic recommends modifying your diet so it is more COPD-friendly. This includes:

  • Eating more high-fiber foods: COPD and heart issues can go hand in hand, so eating foods high in fiber helps reduce your likelihood of developing a cardiac issue by reducing your overall cholesterol levels.
  • Limiting your salt intake: Sodium makes your body retain fluids, making it even harder to breathe, so leave the salt shaker off the table and choose foods with lower sodium levels.
  • Avoiding gassy foods: Gassy foods make you bloat, which increases breathing difficulties. This means staying away from fried foods, beans, cabbage, corn, onions, and carbonated beverages.
  • Not eating too much: The fuller your stomach, the harder it is to breathe. One solution is to eat smaller meals, such as 5-6 meals per day instead of the standard 2-3.
  • Eating slowly: If you have trouble breathing while eating, chew your food more slowly and set your utensils down in between taking bites.
  • Staying hydrated: This keeps your mucus thin, so try to drink 6-8 glasses a day, preferably of a non-caffeinated beverage because caffeine can interfere with some COPD medications.

COPD Prevention

Of course, preventing COPD is best, if possible. While this isn’t always an option, there are some actions you can take today that can potentially lower your risk.

Don’t Smoke

Because smoking is the number-one cause of COPD, it only stands to reason that never smoking at all can potentially keep you from developing this particular lung disease. Does this mean you’re doomed if you currently smoke or used to and have since quit? Not according to one study, which found that the positive effects of quitting appear for COPD patients within the first year. Additionally, after several years, lung decline is similar to that of a non-smoker, even if some level of damage cannot be undone.

Take Vitamin D

After looking at 21 studies involving 4,818 people with COPD and 7,175 subjects who acted as controls, a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease concluded that being deficient in vitamin D can increase a person’s risk of COPD.

Thus, meeting your body’s nutritional needs of this vitamin alone can potentially keep the disease from developing in the first place. Also, vitamin D deficiency had no direct correlation with COPD exacerbation, which implies that this nutrient may be better as a preventative than a treatment option.

Protect Yourself From Environmental Pollutants

Again, exposure to harmful chemicals, dust, and fumes can increase your COPD risk, so reducing these as much as possible can also help to prevent this disease. For instance, if you want to reduce your risk at home, you could install air filters to keep the dust down.

As we’ve made clear, this condition is a major national health issue that impacts people both mentally and physically. Though it has no known cure, there are many different treatment options, a number of which offer promising results toward improving the quality of life for those with COPD.

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