What is COPD?

March 17, 2023
Andrew Gallagher
4 Min Read

About the Author

👨⚕️ Mason Myers is a writer, student and healthcare worker. He balances studying, working and writing. Based out of Texas he has been a nurse all through the pandemic. He is passionate about healthcare and technology.

What is it - COPD

COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is really a group of infections or diseases. They cause airflow blocking and breathing issues. These diseases have very similar, if not identical, symptoms. They all affect the respiratory system in one way or another chronically, which brings up a few questions.‍ 

COPD is typically caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particular matter, usually cigarette smoke.

Unlike some diseases, COPD typically has a clear cause and a clear path of prevention, and there are ways to slow the progression of the disease. Most cases are directly related to cigarette smoking, and the best way to prevent COPD is to never smoke or to stop smoking right now - Mayo Clinic 

Although COPD is a progressive disease that gets worse over time, COPD is treatable. With proper management, most people with COPD can achieve good symptom control and quality of life, as well as reduced risk of other associated conditions.

What are the Symptoms of COPD?

The symptoms of COPD include, but are not limited to:

  • Frequent coughing or wheezing
  • Excessive phlegm, mucus, or sputum production
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing or taking deep breaths

What does Chronic Mean in the Context of COPD?

The term chronic refers to a condition that is recurring throughout your lifetime. This is something that you will be dealing with for the majority or entirety of your life. Something that you will have regular visits to a doctor or medical professional about. 

You can define it as:

  1. Continuing or occurring again and again for a long time.
  2. Happening or existing frequently or most of the time.
  3. Always or often doing something specified.

Chronic can have multiple different meanings, but what we can be sure of in a medical setting is that it is recurring and is typically endured for the majority of one's life. Chronic diseases such as COPD and asthma are a struggle for those that deal with them. Chronic illnesses can take a toll on the life of those and their loved ones.

Who Can Have COPD?

Unfortunately, COPD is a deadly issue. Even more unfortunate, half of our population is more likely to encounter COPD. Women, in general, are more likely to deal with it as well as those over the age of 65. Smokers are also highly at risk for COPD due to the destruction of their lungs caused by cigarette smoke inhalation.

Interestingly, in the past, we have viewed COPD as a man's disease. Up until the early 2000s that was mostly true due to men primarily working in dirty environments and smoking more cigars and cigarettes. It has been made known through some research and statistics that women are more likely to be affected by COPD. This may be primarily due to the effect that tobacco and air pollution has on this part of the population.

What are the Causes of COPD?

As mentioned, several times in the previous information, COPD can be caused by a wide variety of things. The primary of those is tobacco smoke inhalation. Although this is the case, there is also a large percentage of risks from air pollution and other contaminants. A good idea of what causes COPD is anything that can enter the respiratory tract and cause an infection or disease.

COPD can also be caused by a genetic disorder alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency.

COPD in the Field

Fortunately, I personally have not dealt with too many cases of COPD in the field. I work in a Med/Surg (medical and surgical) unit where we deal with all sorts of issues, mostly related to trauma. We see car accidents, falls, ATV accidents, and other issues that require surgery or overnight recovery due to a trauma. When I say I have not seen too many cases, do not take this to mean that I have not seen any cases of COPD. With the recent pandemic there has been an uptick in these kinds of chronic illnesses.

COPD, according to many medical sites, is the third leading cause of death in America. Several million cases of COPD have been seen throughout the nation and worldwide. There are several different types of diseases that cause this, so that is not surprising. 


The goal of treatment is to slow down disease progression and ease symptoms allowing you to live a higher quality of life. Treatment should also aim at preventing and reducing complications that can arise from the disease. 

Quitting smoking is the first line of treatment. For some, this may be the only treatment required for people with mild forms of the disease. Check the Mayo Clinic's guide here.

Help Yourself

  • Stop Smoking - again this is the best thing you can do to enhance your life.
  • Avoid smoke, fumes, dust, and air pollution as much as possible.
  • Take medication as directed.
  • Get regular check-ups
  • Walk/Light exercise multiple times per week.
  • Eat a healthy diet and try to avoid weight gain/loss.
  • Try controlled coughing, lots of water, and using a humidifier to help clear your lungs.
  • Get emotional support through counselling or a support group.
  • Practice techniques for breathing more efficiently throughout the day.

Control Exacerbations

Occasionally your symptoms may worsen for days or weeks. You may notice you have trouble breathing or your airways are producing more mucus and you are coughing more. This is known as an acute exacerbation. Without treatment, this could lead to lung failure. 

Your regular treatments should help i.e. medication (anti-biotics/ steroids). Oxygen treatment may also be useful. You may need to go to the hospital. You can prevent flares/exacerbation:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Take inhaled steroids, long-action bronchodilators, or other medications.
  • Get your yearly flu and pneumonia vaccines.
  • Avoid air pollution as much as possible.

A flare-up can make you feel sick. A bad one could put you in the hospital and might make your COPD more severe. So the fewer you have, the better.

Tracking your COPD

Self-management has been proven to lead to improved quality of life. Help yourself by keeping track of your symptoms, diet, and exercise daily. If you track your symptoms you may be able to notice a COPD exacerbation when it begins. With tracking, you are more likely to notice when your symptoms dramatically change. If you can see medical treatment early you may be able to avoid hospital as it is more effective in the early stages. 

You should track these things each day

  • Symptoms (Cough, shortness of breath, increased mucus, fatigue)
  • Medications and dosages
  • Diet
  • Exercise and other physical activity

📚 Check out our series on how to monitor and track COPD.

What Diseases Make up COPD?

As mentioned in this article and many others, you might be wondering what types of diseases specifically cause COPD. Here is a list:

Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchitis is a disease that irritates your bronchial tubes, which are airways that carry oxygenated air to your alveolar, which are little sacs that transfer oxygen to your blood. Bronchitis causes inflammation and mucus buildup. This can cause you to cough uncontrollably, which is your body trying to expel that mucus.

Pulmonary Emphysema

This disease is a chronic breakdown of the alveoli of the lungs which can be done through several different means. Destroying, narrowing, collapsing, stretching, or over-inflation of the little air sacs (alveolar) in the lungs.


Sometimes asthma can be considered part of COPD. While not all doctors agree, this is definitely something to note. Asthma is a lung inflammation that can be due to the tightening of airways, the muscles that surround them, or the overproduction of mucus in these airways.

Stages of COPD

There are also multiple stages of COPD:

Stage 1 - Mild

This is closely related to Chronic Bronchitis. During this stage, those with COPD will encounter coughing, sputum, mucus, and other milder symptoms of the diseases above.

People with Mild - Moderate COPD will be able to live a good quality of life if they are able to manage their condition well. 

Stage 2 - Moderate

Stage 2 is when most people start to recognize that they have COPD. They will encounter shortness of breath, a hard time breathing, and mucus and other sputum coming up with coughs.

Stage 3 - Severe

This stage is the epitome of what COPD is. You experience all the signs and symptoms with even more obstruction and a harder time with said symptoms. This stage drastically reduces the quality of life.

Stage 4 - Very Severe

During this stage, those affected will have severe airway obstruction and will most likely be on oxygen or other respiratory support. This stage is life-threatening and oftentimes ends in death.

Closing Note

COPD is a nasty set of diseases. It affects our very way of living, and our breath. Without oxygen or air in our lungs, we cannot survive. Without medical intervention, COPD will eventually kill a person, which is not to be taken lightly. I encourage all of those reading that have any symptoms of COPD to seek medical attention immediately. The sooner you can catch this the more of a chance you have to survive.

If any of your loved ones suffer from these symptoms, please have them reach out to their doctor. However, with proper management, most people with COPD can achieve good symptom control and quality of life, as well as reduced risk of other associated conditions.

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