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COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Causes & Symptoms

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Last updated September 30, 2020

COPD questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out if you have COPD.

While there isn't a cure for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), there are ways to reduce your symptoms and breathe more easily.

COPD questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out if you have COPD.

COPD symptom checker

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a disease of the lungs. It's often from inhaling toxins (poisons), most commonly tobacco smoke. It can be from smoking yourself (a significant risk factor for COPD) or from secondhand smoke.

Two main changes can take place. First, the airways, which bring air into the lungs, can become irritated (chronic bronchitis). The body's response to irritation is inflammation. Over time, this causes a narrowing of the airways and mucus production. Both of these can block airflow.

The second change is that the air sacs in the lungs break down (emphysema). It can be hard for oxygen to travel from the air into the blood. Also, air may get trapped in the lungs.

COPD is a chronic disease—there isn't a cure. Often, it gets worse over time. But there are many medications to treat symptoms and improve quality of life.

COPD questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out if you have COPD.

COPD symptom checker

Most common COPD symptoms

Pro Tip

It is never too late to quit smoking. The moment you quit smoking, the rate of your lung function decline slows down. Most people also experience an improvement in some of their symptoms. The average person takes several attempts to quit, so if you couldn’t quit the first time keep trying! - Dr. Benjamin Ranard

People with COPD have chronic (longstanding) and gradually worsening shortness of breath. Many people also have a persistent cough. The cough often brings up mucus—a wet cough. Though it can also be a dry cough.

At first, you may only notice the shortness of breath after physical exertion, such as walking up several flights of stairs. But over time, it may also happen when walking on flat ground.

There are many causes of shortness of breath, including heart problems, lung problems, and being out of shape.

To confirm COPD, doctors will do a breathing test. They are checking for a narrowing of the airways in the lungs.

People with COPD may also experience flare ups. Often, the trigger is a viral or bacterial respiratory infection. COPD suddenly becomes worse with more shortness of breath and coughing. It may require additional treatment at home or even hospitalization.

Main Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath (chronic, progressive)
  • Cough

Other Possible Symptoms

  • Coughing up mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
A damaged lung has trouble expanding and contracting, making it harder to breathe.

What is the main cause of COPD?

The number one risk factor is being around cigarette smoke. Other types of tobacco (e.g., cigar, pipe, most likely electronic cigarettes) and smoking marijuana can also cause it.

Some workplace exposures—like chemicals, dust, fumes, and smoke—may also increase the risk of developing COPD. If you work at a job with dust or fumes, make sure to follow safety practices as instructed by your employer.

In some cases, genetics is a factor.

If you think you have COPD, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. If you notice new or continuous shortness of breath, call 911 or go to the ER.

Treatment for COPD

Dr. Rx

Many patients don’t use their inhalers correctly. Bring your inhalers with you to your visit and make sure your inhaler technique is correct. - Dr. Ranard

Depending on symptoms, you may need inhaled medications, pills, or both. Mild forms of COPD can be treated with an inhaler as-needed when there are symptoms. More severe COPD requires daily medications. They can keep symptoms from getting worse.

Sometimes pulmonary rehabilitation is recommended. It is a supervised exercise and education program that helps improve symptoms.

In certain situations, surgery may be an option. The surgeon removes damaged areas of the lungs to improve breathing.


  • Short-acting bronchodilators, like albuterol and ipratropium, are inhalers that treat symptoms. They open up narrowed airways.
  • Long-acting bronchodilators are daily inhalers. They help prevent airways from getting smaller.
  • Inhaled corticosteroids are a daily steroid medication that decreases airway inflammation (irritation).
  • Inhaled oxygen therapy helps people who have low oxygen levels.
  • Oral steroids like prednisone may be given during a flareup of COPD, especially for people who frequently go to the hospital for COPD. Prednisone is generally for a short time.
  • Antibiotics and prednisone may be prescribed together

Pro Tip

Many classes of inhalers have a few options that your insurance covers differently, making some more expensive to you than others. Ask if there are cheaper alternatives. - Dr. Ranard

COPD questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out if you have COPD.

COPD symptom checker

What happens to your lungs with COPD?

Breathing in smoke, especially cigarette smoke, damages the lungs and its airways.

The airways, which allow air to enter the lungs, become irritated and start to narrow. Damage from smoke makes dirt and bacteria more likely to become trapped in the airways. And it causes more irritation.

The lungs can also break down. It becomes harder for oxygen to get into the blood. People with COPD may have problems with breathing—getting out all of the air in their lungs.

Can a person with COPD get better?

While there is not a cure for COPD, you can reduce symptoms. The most important thing you can do if you smoke is to stop smoking. Quitting can improve some symptoms and prevent lung function from decreasing as quickly.

COPD is a chronic disease—treatment is usually ongoing. Primary care doctors can generally treat COPD. But depending on your symptoms, you may want to see a pulmonologist.

Share your story
Dr. Ranard is a Pulmonary and Critical Care fellow at Columbia University Irving Medical Center / NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. He received his undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from Cornell University (2011) and his Doctor of Medicine and Masters of Science in Health Policy Research from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2016). In addition to pulmonology and c...
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