Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of serious lung diseases. COPD includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema and some types of asthma. In COPD, less air flows through the tubes (called airways) to and from the lungs, which makes it hard to breathe. Although there is no cure for COPD, it often can be prevented or managed.

COPD is a major cause of disability and death in the U.S.1 Chronic lower respiratory diseases, which includes COPD, are the third leading cause of death in the U.S.2 Of these diseases, COPD causes more than 95 percent of the deaths.1

About 15.7 million adults living in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COPD, although millions more may have COPD and not know it.1,3 In New York State, over 900,000 adults have been diagnosed with COPD.4

What causes COPD?

  • Smoking – both current smoking and smoking in the past – is the main cause of COPD in men and women in the U.S.5,6
  • However, as many as 1 out of 4 Americans with COPD never smoked.6 Long-term exposure at home or work to air pollution (including secondhand smoke), chemical fumes and industrial dusts may cause COPD.6,7
  • Respiratory infections may play a role.8
  • A rare, inherited disorder called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) 9

How can COPD be prevented?

  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, quit. For help:
    • Talk to your health care provider. Treatment, including medications, can double or triple your chances of quitting for good.13
    • For additional assistance and support, contact the New York State Smokers' Quitline at 1-866-NYQUITS (1-866-697-8487).
  • Avoid exposure to air pollutants, including secondhand smoke.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

COPD develops slowly. Symptoms often worsen over time and limit the ability to do everyday activities.

Symptoms include:

  • Chronic cough (often called "smokers' cough")
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Coughing up a lot of phlegm (also called sputum – a mixture of saliva and mucus)
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath

If you have any of these symptoms or risk factors for COPD, talk with your health care provider. A simple breathing test (called spirometry) that measures lung function, chest X-rays or CT scans, and blood tests are used to detect COPD.10

Can COPD be treated?

Yes. Treatment and lifestyle changes may slow down the progression of the disease and help people with COPD feel better. However, the damage to the lungs is permanent and cannot be reversed.

That's why it's important to find out if you have COPD. If you do, your health care provider can work with you to find out what medicines and other treatments can help. You may be referred for pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab) and self-management training to learn more about the disease and the important role you have in managing it.11

If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is quit. About 8 out of 10 deaths from COPD are caused by smoking.5 Quitting is hard for many people, and 39% of adults with COPD continue to smoke even after they are diagnosed.12 Although many smokers say they want to quit on their own, health care providers can provide treatment that increases the chances of quitting for good.13

In addition to quitting smoking, other things that may increase your sense of well-being and reduce hospital admissions include:

  • avoiding air pollutants (including secondhand smoke);
  • healthy eating;
  • exercise;
  • taking medicines as prescribed;
  • getting flu and pneumonia vaccines if your health care provider recommends it;
  • receiving emotional support or counseling; and
  • avoiding respiratory infections.8,14,15

For More Information About COPD

Patient and Caregiver Support and Information

  1. Wheaton AG, Cunningham, TJ, Ford ES, Croft JB. Employment and activity limitations among adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—United States, 2013. MMWR. 2015:64 (11):290-295.
  2. National Institutes of Health. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2016: With Chartbook on Long-term Trends in Health. Hyattsville, MD. 2017.
  3. Mannino DM, Gagnon RC, Petty TL, Lydick E. Obstructive lung disease and low lung function in adults in the United States: data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1988-1994. Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:1683-1689.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey Data. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking: 50 Years of Progress. A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014.
  6. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore COPD: What Is COPD? Updated: April 28, 2017.
  7. World Health Organization. Tobacco Free Initiative. Research and Policy. About second hand smoke. 2017.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). What is COPD? Page last reviewed and updated: September 16, 2016
  9. National Institutes of Health. National Human Genome Research Institute. Learning About Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD). Last Updated: January 4, 2012.
  10. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore CODP: Diagnosis. Updated: April 28, 2017.
  11. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore COPD: Treatment. Updated: April 28, 2017.
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Among Adults—United States, 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2012;61(46):938–43.
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service. Clinical Practice Guideline. Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence: 2008 Update. Content last reviewed June 2015.
  14. Zwerink M, Brusse-Keizer M, van der Valk PDLPM, Zielhusa GA, Monninkhof EM, van der Palen J, Frith PA, Effing T. Self management for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 3.
  15. Jordan RD, Majothi S, Heneghan NR, Blissett DB, Riley RD, Stitch AJ, et al. Supported self-management for patients with moderate to severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD): an evidence synthesis and economic analysis. Health Technol Assess 2015; 19(36).