Learning About COPD

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Lungs in chest showing bronchial tubes in left lung, with detail of healthy airway and inflamed airway

What is COPD?

COPD is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is caused by damage to the lungs over many years, usually from smoking.

Other things that may put you at risk for COPD include breathing chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution over a long period of time. Secondhand smoke is also bad.

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two lung problems that are types of COPD. In chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes) get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. This can narrow or block the airways, making it hard for you to breathe. It can also make you cough. In emphysema, the air sacs in your lungs are damaged and lose their stretch. Less air gets in and out of your lungs, which makes you feel short of breath.

What happens when you have COPD?

COPD gradually gets worse over time. As it gets worse, you may be short of breath even when you do things like get dressed, fix a meal, or eat. People often feel weaker and limit activities. And some people may get lung infections and heart problems.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms are:

  • A cough that will not go away.
  • Mucus that comes up when you cough.
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse with activity.

At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is a called a COPD exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). When this happens, your usual symptoms quickly get worse and stay bad. This can be dangerous. You may have to go to the hospital.

How can you keep COPD from getting worse?

Not smoking is the best way to keep COPD from getting worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. Also, be sure to get your COVID-19, flu, pneumococcal, and whooping cough (pertussis) vaccines. And avoid air pollution, fumes, and dust as much as you can.

How is COPD treated?

COPD may be treated with medicines and oxygen, along with self-care.

  • Medicines called bronchodilators are used to open or relax your airways. They can help you breathe easier. There are two types:
    • Short-acting bronchodilators ease your symptoms. They are considered a good first choice for treating stable COPD in a person whose symptoms come and go (intermittent symptoms).
    • Long-acting bronchodilators help prevent breathing problems. They help people whose symptoms do not go away (persistent symptoms).
  • Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier.
  • Self-care means the things you can do for yourself to help manage your COPD. They are things like:
    • Quitting smoking.
    • Eating well.
    • Staying active.
    • Avoiding colds, infections, and other things that may trigger your symptoms.
    • Staying current on vaccines.

A lung (pulmonary) rehab program can help you learn to manage your disease. This program teaches you how to breathe easier, exercise, and eat well.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter V314 in the search box to learn more about "Learning About COPD".

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.