Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the umbrella term used for a group of diseases that affect the lungs and make breathing difficult by blocking airflow. The most common conditions that fit under COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing or frequently recurring inflammation of the bronchial tube lining. Emphysema is the gradual destruction of bronchioles – small air passages in your lungs. COPD is progressive. The damage done to your lungs can’t be reversed, but there are ways to control the symptoms of COPD, restore or bolster the function of the lungs and make life more comfortable for people who are diagnosed with the condition.

Symptoms and Complications

Typically, people with COPD exhibit no symptoms until there has already been significant lung damage. Once they appear, they are chronic and worsen over time. The main symptom of chronic bronchitis is a cough that lasts for at least three months two years in a row. Other symptoms of COPD include:

* Shortness of breath, made worse by physical activity

* Tightness in the chest

* Wheezing

* Chronic cough that produces clear, white, yellow or greenish sputum

* Having to clear your throat in the morning because of excess mucus in the lungs

* Frequent respiratory infections

* Blue tinge in lips or fingernail beds

* Lack of energy

It is not uncommon for people with COPD to have periods of time ranging from a day to several days when the symptoms are considerably worse. These are called exacerbations. In addition, people with COPD are at greater risk for high blood pressure and pulmonary hypertension, heart disease, lung cancer and depression.

Risk Factors and Causes

Smoking is the most common cause of COPD. About 20 percent of smokers will develop the condition. Women who are exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking or heating in poorly ventilated homes may also develop COPD. People who smoke cigars, pipes or marijuana, or who are exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke are also at risk of developing COPD, as are those who are exposed to chemical fumes, dust and vapor in the workplace over a long period of time. People with asthma who smoke face a greater risk of developing COPD than smokers who don’t have asthma. Most people are at least 35 to 40 years old before they start showing symptoms of COPD, though the damage to the lungs starts much earlier. Finally, there may be genetic factors that make some smokers more susceptible to COPD than others.


COPD is incurable, but there are treatments available to help control symptoms, reduce the risk of complications and improve the quality of life of patients with the condition. The treatments include drugs and medications to help ease breathing, smoking cessation treatment, oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation and surgery, as well as lifestyle changes and home interventions that can help make breathing easier. Stem cells treatments and other alternative treatments may also be helpful for COPD.

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