COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

Understanding COPD

Quick GuideCOPD Lung Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

COPD Lung Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

What is the definition of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a slowly progressive obstruction of airflow into or out of the lungs. The incidence of COPD has almost doubled since 1982. Experts have estimated about 32 million persons in the United States have COPD. The disease occurs slightly more often in men than in women. The symptoms (for example, shortness of breath, coughing) come on slowly and many people are consequently diagnosed after age 40-50, although some are diagnosed at a younger age. COPD patients may exhibit symptoms of chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.

The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) defines COPD as airflow limitation that is not fully reversible, usually is progressive, and is associated with an abnormal inflammatory response of the lungs to inhaled noxious particles or gases. This article will focus on COPD and not on other related problems (for example, bronchitis or asthma).

What causes COPD?

The primary cause of COPD is cigarette smoking or exposure to tobacco smoke. It is estimated that 90% of the risk for development of COPD is related to tobacco smoke. The smoke also can be secondhand smoke (tobacco smoke exhaled by a smoker and then breathed in by a non-smoker).

Other causes of COPD are:

  • Prolonged exposure to air pollution, such as that seen with burning coal or wood and with industrial air pollutants
  • Infectious diseases: Infectious diseases that destroy lung tissue in patients with hyperactive airways or asthma also may contribute to causing this COPD.

Damage to the lung tissue over time causes physical changes in the tissues of the lungs and clogging of the airways with thick mucus. The tissue damage in the lungs leads to poor compliance (the elasticity, or ability of the lung tissue to expand). The decrease in elasticity of the lungs means that oxygen in the air cannot get by obstructions (for example, thick mucus plugs) to reach air spaces (alveoli) where oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange occurs in the lung. Consequently, the person exhibits a progressive difficulty, first coughing to remove obstructions like mucus, and then in breathing, especially with exertion.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/4/2015

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