Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary (PULL-mun-ary) 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 mucus (a slimy substance), wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust, also may contribute to COPD

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Understanding COPD

To understand COPD, it helps to understand how the lungs work. The air that you breathe goes down your windpipe into tubes in your lungs called bronchial tubes or airways.

Within the lungs, your bronchial tubes branch into thousands of smaller, thinner tubes called bronchioles. These tubes end in bunches of tiny round air sacs called alveoli (al-VEE-uhl-eye).

Small blood vessels called capillaries run through the walls of the air sacs. When air reaches the air sacs, the oxygen in the air passes through the air sac walls into the blood in the capillaries.

At the same time, carbon dioxide (a waste gas) moves from the capillaries into the air sacs. This process is called gas exchange. The airways and air sacs are elastic (stretchy). When you breathe in, each air sac fills up with air like a small balloon. When you breathe out, the air sacs deflate and the air goes out.

In COPD, less air flows in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following:

  • The airways and air sacs lose their elastic quality.
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed.
  • The airways make more mucus than usual, which tends to clog them.

Helpful Documents

View and print these helpful Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) handouts

COPD: Topic Overview
COPD: Alpha 1 Antitrypsin Deficiency
COPD: Action Plan
COPD: Avoiding Your Triggers
COPD: Breathing Problems: How Your Lungs Work
COPD: Breathing Problems: Using a Metered Dose Inhaler
COPD: Clearing Your Lungs
COPD: Lung Function in COPD
COPD: Conserving Energy When You Have COPD or Other Chronic Conditions
COPD: Exacerbations
COPD: Flare-Ups
COPD: Helpful Breathing Techniques
COPD: How to Create an Exacerbation Plan
COPD: Identifying Your Triggers
COPD: Keeping Your Diet Healthy
COPD: Lung Problems: Learning to Breathe Easier
COPD: Master List of Medicines
COPD: Medicines
COPD: Steroids
COPD: Oxygen Therapy Using Oxygen at Home
COPD: Quitting Smoking
COPD: Quitting Smoking: My Quit Plan
COPD: Quitting Smoking: My Reasons to Stop
COPD: Quitting Smoking: Should I Take Medicine to Quit?
COPD: Using Exercise to Feel Better