What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Breathing is not something you typically think about … until you can’t do it. It’s not until you’re stuffed up with the flu or suffering from seasonal allergies that you become more acutely aware of your need to inhale and exhale.

But imagine if difficulty breathing was your norm. For 16 million adults over age 40, this is their reality. This condition is called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic lung disease. Usually, COPD means you have a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or asthma. Here’s how bronchitis and emphysema affect the lungs and cause COPD:

  • When you have emphysema, the alveoli (or small balloon-like sacs at the end of the bronchial tubes) lose their elasticity and become permanently enlarged. This means they are unable to move as you inhale and exhale, and creates extra strain on the chest muscles.

  • When you have chronic bronchitis, excess mucus in the airways can block the flow of oxygen. Furthermore, the cells that are supposed to clear away mucus become damaged, so they are less able to clean up the airways.

In both of these cases, smoking cigarettes is usually a main culprit. In fact. 85 percent of COPD cases are directly related to smoking tobacco. (Here are the other ways smoking affects the body.)

The chemicals in cigarette smoke trigger inflammation in the lungs. Of course, the more extensive the smoking habit, the higher the lung damage related to COPD will be.

Here are videos with more information about the symptoms of COPD and treatment for COPD. For help with giving up cigarettes for good, check out this video for tips to quit smoking.

Dr. Holly Atkinson

This video features Dr. Holly Atkinson. Dr. Holly Atkinson specializes in Internal Medicine and is an award-winning medical journalist. She is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine as well as Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

Duration: 03:33.
Reviewed by: Dr. Preeti Parikh, Dr. Mera Goodman . Review date: October 28, 2014
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