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8 Things Everyone Should Know About COPD

About 25 million people in the United States have Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease (COPD), a lung disease characterized by chronic airway inflammation and obstruction. It has two underlying causes: emphysema and chronic bronchitis (and some people have both). Without treatment, symptoms—which include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of—get worse over time. Understanding the facts about the disease can help ensure a better quality of life.

MYTH: Only smokers get COPD.

FACT: While most people with COPD (as many as 75%) are current or former smokers, the rest have never smoked. Other causes include:

• exposure to secondhand smoke, concrete dust, and chemical fumes

• exposure to cooking done over wood fires in enclosed spaces

• a genetic disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (which is very rare)

For those who do smoke and have COPD, research has found that quitting can significantly slow their loss of lung function. Patients who want to quit should speak to their healthcare provider or access the resources at


MYTH: COPD is rare.

FACT: It’s actually more common than most people think. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injuries. One in five adults over the age of 45 has COPD. Women are more likely to have it than men (56% vs. 44%). Some ethnic groups (American Indian and Alaska Native) and people living in southern states along the Mississippi-Ohio River Valley are disproportionately affected. In Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, almost one person in 10 has COPD.

MYTH: There is no treatment for COPD.

FACT: Although COPD can’t be cured, it can certainly be treated. COPD that’s causes by emphysema is usually treated with supplemental oxygen.

People who have COPD that’s caused by chronic bronchitis typically take two types of medication:

• bronchodilators, which open the airway to allow for easier breathing and can be delivered through an inhaler or taken as a tablet, liquid, or injected

• corticosteroids, which reduce lung inflammation and are inhaled

Many doctors also recommend pulmonary rehab, which offers education, support, and exercise. Eating a healthy diet and getting the flu vaccine every year and the pneumococcal vaccines every five years can also help.

MYTH: When you have COPD, it’s obvious.

FACT: Early warning signs for COPD are often missed, These include chronic cough, shortness of breath while doing everyday activities, frequent respiratory infections, cyanosis (blueness of the lips or fingernail beds), fatigue, heavy mucus production, fluid in the lungs, and wheezing. Patients may think they’re “out of shape” or “just getting older.” More than 10 million adults may have COPD without realizing it.

By the time patients see a doctor for their breathing problems, the disease may already have caused major damage to the lungs. That’s why early diagnosis—and the start of treatment—is so important. An ongoing cough, shortness of breath, or frequent respiratory infections should be checked by a doctor.

MYTH: COPD is an older person’s disease.

FACT: Although COPD is more common in older people, it affects a large number of younger people as well. About 70% of the people with COPD in the United States are under age 60, according to the COPD Foundation.

MYTH: COPD affects only the lungs.

FAT: The disease affects other organs as well, including the heart. When you have low oxygen levels, your heart has to work harder, and the resulting system pressure raises the risk for a heart attack.

COPD can also affect mental health. Patients often feel isolated and depressed. They get together less often with friends.

The disease can also cause a symptom few people would associate with a respiratory disease: bloating. Why does this happen? COPD causes the lungs to become less elastic over time, which prevents patients from being able to fully exhale after each breath. The result is hyperinflated lungs (also called “long lungs”). As the lungs become “long,” they take up more room in the body, putting pressure on the intestines, stomach, and diaphragm and causing bloating. Breathing strategies and some medications can help.


MYTH: If you have COPD, you shouldn’t exercise.

FACT: Moderate exercise not only won’t hurt you—it will decrease your COPD symptoms, strengthen your heart, and reduce stress.

Before you begin a new exercise routine, speak to a health-care professional for advice on combining cardiovascular activity with stretching and strength training. Rest before and after exercise. And while you’re working out, breathe out slowly through parsed lips, and take twice as long to exhale as to inhale.

MYTH: When you go on oxygen, you’ll have to live with it forever.

FACT: Not always. Some people need oxygen therapy only to treat acute COPD exacerbations or “flare-ups,” when shortness of breath suddenly worsens. Oxygen can help get the problem under control, and the patient may not need oxygen unless another flare-up occurs.

Last updated on 9/30/19.

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