What is COPD? (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
What is COPD?

What is COPD?

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a long-term and progressive lung disease that involves inflammation and thickening of the airways.¹ Over time the airways become increasingly blocked, making it more difficult to breathe.

As breathing in and out becomes more restricted, less oxygen can enter the bloodstream to reach the rest of the body’s cells; and less carbon dioxide can be exhaled, so it remains in the body as a toxin.

There is no cure for COPD. But treatments are available, including medications, oxygen therapy and non-invasive ventilation to help people live longer and improve their quality of life.

COPD consists of two chronic conditions:

  1. Chronic bronchitis, which causes inflammation of the airways and a persistent cough with mucus; and
  2. Emphysema, which is caused by lung tissue damage, and results in shortness of breath.

Causes of COPD

Roughly 80–90% of COPD cases are caused by tobacco smoke (both use and secondhand).1 In fact, roughly 25% of chronic smokers are diagnosed with COPD.2

Other risk factors include frequent childhood respiratory infections, exposure to air pollution, and occupational exposure to dust and chemicals.3

How common is COPD?

An estimated 65 million people worldwide are living with COPD,4 including roughly 24 million Americans.5 However, doctors believe that only about half of them have been diagnosed.6

COPD is the third leading cause of death, both globally7 and in the United States.8 Over the next decade, deaths from COPD are projected to increase by more than 30%.4

Symptoms of COPD

COPD usually takes years to develop. The earliest symptom may be shortness of breath (caused by the person's ever-narrowing airway) or a chronic, wheezing cough (the person's attempt to clear out the excess mucus that the body produces when its airway narrows). However, COPD symptoms often don’t appear until your lungs are significantly damaged,9 so it’s important to discuss your risk with your doctor in the hopes of catching and treating it earlier.

People most at risk:10

  • Are long-time smokers (i.e. cigarettes, cigars, pipes, marijuana)
  • Were exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke
  • Were exposed to chemical fumes, vapors and dusts (especially for construction workers)
  • Are 35 years or older
  • Have alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a rare and often undetected genetic condition, sometimes misdiagnosed as asthma11

A social problem

People with COPD are at risk of serious chest infections and may need frequent hospital admissions for treatment. In fact, 20% of patients hospitalized with COPD exacerbations are readmitted within 30 days.12 Each exacerbation places a tremendous burden on patients and their families.

Hospitals, insurance providers, care providers and patients are all looking for better solutions to the long-term care and management of COPD.13

The total annual cost of COPD in the United States is $49.9 billion,14 and 50–75% of this cost is due to exacerbations.15

What you can do

Smoking cessation is a vital first step for smokers who are diagnosed with COPD, while drug therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation are also important components for treatment. Leading an overall healthy life can help prevent exacerbations that cause hospital visits. Oxygen therapy or non-invasive ventilation are also helpful for some COPD patients. Ask your doctor if oxygen therapy or non-invasive ventilation are right for you.

See the bigger COPD picture


  1. Canadian Lung Association. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Edited by Canadian Thoracic Society’s COPD Clinical Assembly, 2014. https://www.lung.ca/copd (accessed October 7, 2015).
  2. Mayo Clinic. COPD: Causes. 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/causes/con-20032017 (accessed October 7, 2015).
  3. World Health Organization. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Fact sheet N°315. 2015. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs315/en/ (accessed October 7, 2015).
  4. World Health Organization. Chronic respiratory diseases: Burden of COPD. www.who.int/respiratory/copd/burden/en/ (accessed August 10, 2015).
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Surveillance – United States, 1971-2000. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. August 2, 2002; 51(SS06):1-16.
  6. Zamosky L. “COPD: Exploring the value of care.” Modern Medicine Network 2013 Apr 10. http://medicaleconomics.modernmedicine.com/medical-economics/RC/tags/business-health/copd-exploring-value-care (accessed August 10, 2015).
  7. World Health Organization. The top 10 causes of death: Fact sheet: N°310 (2012 statistics). 2014. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/ (accessed October 7, 2015).
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leading causes of death (2013 statistics). 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm (accessed October 7, 2015).
  9. Mayo Clinic. COPD: Symptoms. 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/symptoms/con-20032017 (accessed October 7, 2015).
  10. Mayo Clinic. COPD: Risk factors. 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/risk-factors/con-20032017 (accessed October 7, 2015).
  11. Genetics Home Reference. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Reviewed 2013; published 2015. http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/alpha-1-antitrypsin-deficiency (accessed October 8, 2015).
  12. Mannino DM and Thomashow B. Reducing COPD readmissions: Great promise but big problems. Chest 2015;147(5):1199–1201.
  13. Feemster LC and Au DH. Penalizing hospitals for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease readmissions. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2014;189(6):634–9.
  14. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. www.goldcopd.org/uploads/users/files/GOLD_Report_2015_Apr2.pdf (accessed October 20, 2015).
  15. Guarascio AJ et al. The clinical and economic burden of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the USA. Clinicoecon Outcomes Res 2013;5:235–45.