What You Need To Know About COPD

COPD- or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease- is a condition that affects over 15 million Americans. It is also a chronic illness that many are not familiar with — but information and raising awareness can help to change that. Here’s what you need to know about COPD. 

What is COPD? 

According to the CDC, COPD is a term referring to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. It includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

The Causes of COPD

According to The American Lung Association, there are a number of causes or “risk-factors” that contribute to the development of COPD: 

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Breathing secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to air pollution 
  • Working with chemicals, dust, and fumes (often work-related)
  • A history of childhood respiratory infection 
  • A rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 Deficiency, in which the protective protein that protects the lungs (Alpha-1) is not able to be produced by the body

Of these causes, cigarette smoking accounts for 85-90% of all COPD cases. 

Symptoms of COPD 

The Mayo Clinic lists the common symptoms of COPD as: 

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • A chronic cough that may produce mucus (sputum) that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
  • Swelling in ankles, feet, or legs

Symptoms often will not appear until significant lung damage has occurred. 

The Stages of COPD 

COPD is often described as occurring in “stages”. Below is an overview of these 4 stages, according to the Lung Health Institute. Forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) refers to the volume of air that an individual can exhale during a forced breath in 1 second, and is a metric that helps diagnose severity of COPD.


  • Mild COPD or Stage/Grade 1—Mild COPD with a FEV1 about 80 percent or more of normal.
  • Moderate COPD or Stage/Grade 2—Moderate COPD with a FEV1 between 50 and 80 percent of normal.
  • Severe COPD or Stage/Grade 3—Severe emphysema with a FEV1 between 30 and 50 percent of normal.
  • Very Severe COPD or Stage/Grade 4—Very severe or End-Stage COPD with a lower FEV1 than Stage (Grade) 3, or people with low blood oxygen levels and a Stage (Grade) 3 FEV1.

During mild stage COPD (stage 1), people may not realize that they have a problem yet. Daily activities may cause slight limitations to their breathing, and some experience a cough and phlegm.

During the moderate stage of COPD (stage 2), people notice more coughing and mucus production. 

During severe stage COPD (stage 3), lung function continues to decline, and breathing becomes more difficult. Typically, COPD symptoms make it challenging to enjoy activities or to perform daily tasks. During this level, many people feel more fatigue and have difficulty exercising.

End-stage COPD (stage 4) is classified as very severe and often affects quality of life profoundly. Flare-ups and breathing issues may become life threatening. Many people have trouble receiving enough oxygen, and low blood oxygen levels can lead to serious health conditions such as hypoxia or hypoxemia, cyanosis and other problems. 

Treating COPD 

According to the CDC, there are a number of lifestyle changes and treatments that doctors will often recommend: 

  • For people with COPD who have trouble eating because of shortness of breath or being tired.
  • Following a special meal plan with smaller, more frequent meals
  • Resting before eating
  • Taking vitamins and nutritional supplements
  • A broad program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic (ongoing) breathing problems and includes the following:
  • Exercise training
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Education on your lung disease or condition and how to manage it
  • Energy-conserving techniques
  • Breathing strategies
  • Psychological counseling and/or group support
  • Medicines such as:
    • A bronchodilator to relax the muscles around the airways. 
    • A steroid drug you inhale to reduce swelling in the airways
    • Antibiotics to treat respiratory infections, if appropriate
    • A vaccination during flu season
  • Oxygen therapy, which can help people who have severe COPD and low levels of oxygen in their blood to breathe better
  • New valve treatments – Bronchoscopic lung volume reduction therapy has recently been approved for severe emphysema as a less invasive treatment for lung reduction. Read more about it here.
  • Surgery for people who have severe symptoms that have not improved with other treatments
    • Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS): Surgery to remove diseased parts of the lung so healthier lung tissue can work better. 
    • A lung transplant: Surgery in which one or two healthy lungs from a donor are put in the patient’s body to replace diseased lungs. A lung transplant is a last resort.

Remember that COPD is not a condition that you should self-diagnose. Consult your doctor if you are concerned that you are displaying symptoms to get an official diagnosis. 

Preventing COPD 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, most forms of COPD CAN be prevented. If you are a smoker, smoking cessation programs and other aids can help you quit before you develop COPD. Avoiding any environment that has poor air quality- air that has particles like dust, smoke, gases, and fumes- can also help to prevent COPD. 

Spreading the word about COPD

If you want to help spread the word about COPD, the NHLBI has a number of resources for social media that you can find here. You can also share this article with others to help raise awareness!