Conditions InDepth: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
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Conditions InDepth: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to two lung diseases that are closely related: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Although these diseases often occur together, you may have symptoms more characteristic of one than the other. In both conditions, airflow out of the lungs is restricted, making breathing very difficult.

Up to 90% of COPD cases are caused by smoking, and smokers are 10 times more likely to die from the disease. Frequent lung infections and exposure to certain industrial chemicals can also cause COPD and some cases are related to genetic abnormalities. Approximately 16 million Americans been diagnosed with COPD. It is estimated that at least 12 million other Americans have the disease but have not been diagnosed. COPD causes about 120,000 deaths per year. It is currently the fourth leading cause of death in Americans, although it is predicted to rise to become the third leading cause by 2020. Although the changes in lung tissue differ between the two diseases, the causes and treatments are similar.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic Bronchitis

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Chronic bronchitis is characterized by inflamed airway tissue and excessive mucus production. This leads to a persistent, productive cough that lasts for several months each year. Sometimes the large and small airways of the lungs become narrowed, and the lining of the passageways may become scarred. This makes it hard to move air in and out of your lungs, resulting in shortness of breath. Over 12 million Americans have chronic bronchitis.


Emphysemic Lung

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In emphysema, the walls between the tiny air sacs in the lungs lose their ability to stretch, and they become weakened and break. As the lung tissue becomes less elastic, air is trapped inside the air sacs, and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is impaired. Nearly three million Americans have emphysema.

What are the risk factors for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
What are the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
How is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease diagnosed?
What are the treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
Are there screening tests for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
How can I reduce my risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
What is it like to live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
Where can I get more information about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?


American Lung Association website. Available at: .

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website. Available at:

Last reviewed June 2008 by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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