What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) is a disease that affects your lungs and your ability to breathe. The most common symptoms including coughing, wheezing, difficult breathing, and phlegm or sputum production in the lungs.

COPD is mostly caused by smoking, though it is also caused by exposure to other irritants or particles in the air you breathe. Being diagnosed with COPD puts you at an increased risk of developing other life-threatening conditions, such as lung cancer and heart disease.

COPD is chronic, meaning it doesn’t appear only once and then go away. Instead, episodes may occur and reoccur. It is also progressive disease. In the majority of patients, COPD gets worse over time.
In the United States, a staggering 12 million people have been diagnosed with COPD. But thousands more may have the disease without even knowing it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lists COPD as one of the top five leading causes of death in the United States.

How Your Lungs Work

To understand how COPD affects your lungs, you need to know how your lungs work. When you breathe in air, it passes through your windpipe and fills your bronchial tubes, located in your lungs. These tubes are like the branches of tree, splitting off into smaller and smaller tubes. The smallest tubes are called bronchioles, and at the end of them are air sacs, called alveoli. When you inhale, they fill up with air much in the same way that a balloon does. When you exhale, they deflate.

The walls of the air sacs are criss-crossed with small blood vessels which absorb oxygen from the air you breathe. This oxygen is carried through your blood to be used throughout your body. While oxygen is absorbed, carbon dioxide, a waste product, is passed out of the air sacs. You breathe out carbon dioxide when you exhale. 

What Happens When You Have COPD?

COPD causes changes in the lungs that make it difficult to breathe. Your air sacs lose their elasticity, which means that it’s more difficult for them to grow and shrink along with your breathing. The walls of the air sacs may also become weak. Similarly, the walls of your airways, including your windpipe, may become swollen and blocked with excess mucus or phlegm.

All of these changes make it more difficult to breathe. When you have a hard time breathing, your cells won’t get all of the oxygen they need to give you energy. Physical exercise may become impossible, and in later stages of the disease, even speaking can leave you out of breath.

Lung damage caused by COPD is not reversible, and there is no cure for those diagnosed with the disease. With that said, there are a wide variety of lifestyle changes and treatment options that can improve quality of life for people suffering from COPD. Addressing symptoms of COPD can slow the progression of the disease and reduce the risk of developing an associated condition.   

Forms of COPD

COPD generally comes in two forms.

  • Emphysema - Emphysema is a disease that results in the destruction of the air sacs, or alveoli, of the lungs.
  • Chronic bronchitis - Bronchitis is a condition that causes the airways to become inflamed. This inflammation makes it difficult for air to get through to the lungs. Chronic bronchitis is also associated with coughing. In order to be chronic, symptoms of bronchitis must appear most days of the week for at least three consecutive months.

Together, these conditions contribute to difficulty absorbing oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide. 

Symptoms of COPD

It’s difficult to identify COPD, as symptoms may not appear until significant damage has been done to the lungs. Signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • Feeling short of breath, especially when engaging in physical activity
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Feeling the need to clear your throat of excess phlegm and/or mucus, especially first thing in the morning
  • A cough that never goes away and produces white, clear, yellow, or green-coloured mucus
  • Respiratory infections
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Unexplained weight loss 

In most cases of COPD, exacerbations are periods or episodes when symptoms become worse than usual. These exacerbations may carry on for several days at a time and then go away.

Getting a COPD Diagnosis

The best way to know if you are suffering from COPD is to make an appointment with your doctor. Spirometry is a special type of test which assesses lung function. It involves exhaling as hard as you can into a small machine that measures the volume of air your lungs can hold. Your doctor can tell you the results right away.

Your doctor may also use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs. While this can sometimes indicate COPD, other times, the lungs sound normal even when COPD is present.

Scans can also be helpful in diagnosing COPD. A CT scan is one of the best ways to show COPD, while x-rays only sometimes indicate the presence of COPD.

What's the difference between COPD and a normal cough?

The two most common forms of COPD, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, are caused by smoking. For this reason, it can be difficult to distinguish the symptoms of COPD from a standard smoker's cough.

While most smokers experience coughing, COPD is focused on a consistent daily cough. It that produces mucus. It needs to occur for a minimum of three months out of the year for two consecutive years. And unlike a regular cough, COPD also causes shortness of breath, especially during exercise; wheezing; chest tightness; a blue tinge to the lips and fingernail beds; lack of energy; chronic respiratory infections; and unexplained weight loss.

If you have a chronic cough and expect it might be COPD, your doctor will perform a lung function test known as spirometry. You blow into a large tube connected to a machine that measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can exhale all the air from your lungs. Your doctor may recommend this screening if you are a smoker, since it can detect COPD before symptoms arise.


While there is no known cure for COPD, treatment can help to significantly lessen symptoms. It can also help slow down the progression of the disease over time.

Medication is usually prescribed to treat COPD. Most of the time, your doctor will prescribe an inhaler with medication to help open your airways. Steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs can help to reduce the inflammation in your airways, making it easier to breathe. In some cases, long-term antibiotics are also prescribed to target bacteria. These drugs are taken daily.  

You might also require medication to take during an exacerbation or flare-up. Steroids, which can be taken orally or injected, can help to open your lungs during moments when symptoms of your COPD make it difficult to breathe.

Oxygen therapy is another type of treatment that can help you to get all the oxygen you need. It is mostly prescribed during the later stages of the disease. 
If you smoke, quitting is crucial to stopping the damage to your lungs. You should speak to a health professional regarding the resources available to help you quit smoking. 

Diet can also play a key factor in reducing COPD symptoms. Foods to avoid are meats that contain nitrates such as bacon,ham, and hotdogs. You will also want to try and avoid salty foods, dairy, fried foods, and carbonated beverages. Foods that can help reduce COPD symptoms are high-fiber foods. This can include bran, pastas, cereal, bananas, as well as other fruit and rice.

Disclaimer: Information on this website is not meant to encourage the self-management of any health or wellness issue. Nor is it meant to encourage any one type of medical treatment. Any treatment or advice used may have varying results between individuals. Readers with health-related questions, are always encouraged to seek proper consultation with a physician or certified healthcare provider. No information on this website should be used to ignore any medical or health-related advice, nor should it be the root cause for a delay in a consultation with a physician or a certified healthcare provider.

No information on this website should be used to start the use of dietary supplements and vitamins, natural and herbal products, homeopathic medicine and other mentioned products prior to a consultation with a physician or certified healthcare provider.