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General Information About COPD


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or a combination of both conditions.  COPD affects 16-24 million individuals in the United States. COPD develops slowly and can worsen over time. When COPD is severe, symptoms can get in the way of the most basic tasks, such as doing light housework, taking a walk, even bathing and getting dressed.  Many people with COPD avoid activities that they used to enjoy because they have difficulty breathing.

COPD is a common cause of hospitalization and has surpassed stroke to become the third leading cause of death in the U.S.  COPD is also the third-leading cause of hospital readmissions and a cause of serious, long-term disability.  Annual healthcare costs related to COPD are estimated to be about $50 billion each year in the U.S.

Who is at risk?

Smoking cigarettes is the principal risk factor for COPD in the U.S.  There are other risk factors, including pollutants such as fumes or chemicals, dust, and smoke (including secondhand smoke).  In some cases, COPD is caused by a genetic condition called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.  COPD most often occurs in people over age 40, but can develop earlier in individuals with alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

What are the symptoms?

  • Chronic cough, sometimes called "smoker's cough"

  • Difficulty breathing while doing activities you used to be able to do

  • Excess sputum production

  • Wheezing

How is COPD diagnosed?

Everyone at risk for COPD who has cough, breathlessness, or sputum production, should have a pulmonary lung function test (spirometry), which can be performed during an outpatient office visit. Spirometry measures the amount of air a person can blow out of the lungs (volume) and how fast they can blow it out (flow). You may also need a blood test to determine if you have alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. A diagnosis of COPD requires, at a minimum, a medical history, physical exam, and low flow rates on spirometry.

What do I do if I have COPD?

  1. Quit smoking.  It is never too late to quit smoking.
  2. Avoid exposure to pollutants (fumes, chemicals, dust, smoke). 
  3. Visit your doctor or other health care provider on a regular basis, even when you are not sick. Many medications used for COPD are delivered by inhalers, so ask your doctor or other healthcare provider to show you how to use inhalers correctly and then check your inhaler technique. Be sure to tell your doctor about all your health conditions and bring all your medicines to your visit. 
  4. Take precautions against seasonal flu.  This includes getting a flu vaccine each year.

What about research?

The federal government, foundations, pharmaceutical companies, and others are conducting studies to identify new treatment options for COPD.   Some of these studies are listed on which is a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world.  The COPD Foundation also has information about research and the importance of joining a study. While a number of treatment options for COPD are available, it is not always clear which treatment option is best for individual patients.  There is therefore increasing interest in comparative effectiveness research (CER).  CER compares interventions head-to-head, including pharmacologic agents, devices, and strategies for delivering healthcare.  Recently, the COPD Outcomes-based Network for Clinical Effectiveness and Research Translation (CONCERT) convened over 50 stakeholder groups, including the American Thoracic Society, COPD Foundation, and Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, to identify and prioritize CER topics in COPD.  Priorities for CER were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Click Here.

Four Facts About COPD
  1. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute estimates that 12 million adults in the United States have COPD, and another 12 million are undiagnosed or developing COPD.

  2. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

  3. Every four minutes an individual dies of COPD.

  4. In 2010, the U.S. government was projected to have spent $49.9 billion in direct and indirect costs related to COPD.A majority of those expenses are due to hospitalizations, which can be prevented with better diagnosis and management practices.