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COPD

What is COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)?

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a group of lung diseases that make it hard to breathe and get worse over time.

Normally, the airways and air sacs in your lungs are elastic or stretchy. When you breathe in, the airways bring air to the air sacs. The air sacs fill up with air, like a small balloon. When you breathe out, the air sacs deflate, and the air goes out. If you have COPD, less air flows in and out of your airways because of one or more problems:

  • The airways and air sacs in your lungs become less elastic
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed
  • The airways make more mucus than usual and can become clogged
What are the types of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)?

COPD includes two main types:

  • Emphysema affects the air sacs in your lungs, as well as the walls between them. They become damaged and are less elastic.
  • Chronic bronchitis, in which the lining of your airways is constantly irritated and inflamed. This causes the lining to swell and make mucus.

Most people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but how severe each type is can be different from person to person.

What causes COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)?

The cause of COPD is usually long-term exposure to irritants that damage your lungs and airways. In the United States, cigarette smoke is the main cause. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke can also cause COPD, especially if you inhale them.

Exposure to other inhaled irritants can contribute to COPD. These include secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes or dusts from the environment or workplace.

Rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can play a role in causing COPD.

Who is at risk for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)?

The risk factors for COPD include

  • Smoking. This the main risk factor. Up to 75% of people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke.
  • Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes and dusts from the environment or workplace
  • Age. Most people who have COPD are at least 40 years old when their symptoms begin.
  • Genetics. This includes alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a genetic condition. Also, smokers who get COPD are more likely to get it if they have a family history of COPD.
  • Asthma. People who have asthma have more risk of developing COPD than people who don't have asthma. But most people with asthma will not get COPD.
What are the symptoms of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)?

At first, you may have no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, your symptoms usually become more severe. They can include

  • Frequent coughing or a cough that produces a lot mucus
  • Wheezing
  • A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Tightness in your chest

Some people with COPD get frequent respiratory infections such as colds and the flu. In severe cases, COPD can cause weight loss, weakness in your lower muscles, and swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs.

How is COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) diagnosed?

Your health care provider may use many tools to make a diagnosis:

  • A medical history, which includes asking about your symptoms
  • A family history
  • Various tests, such as lung function tests, a chest x-ray or CT scan, and blood tests

Your doctor will diagnose COPD based on your signs and symptoms, your medical and family histories, and test results.

What are the treatments for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)?

There is no cure for COPD. However, treatments can help with symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and improve your ability to stay active. There are also treatments to prevent or treat complications of the disease. Treatments include

  • Lifestyle changes, such as
    • Quitting smoking if you are a smoker. This is the most important step you can take to treat COPD.
    • Avoiding secondhand smoke and places where you might breathe in other lung irritants
    • Ask your health care provider for an eating plan that will meet your nutritional needs. Also ask about how much physical activity you can do. Physical activity can strengthen the muscles that help you breathe and improve your overall wellness.
  • Medicines, such as
    • Bronchodilators, which relax the muscles around your airways. This helps open your airways and makes breathing easier. Most bronchodilators are taken through an inhaler. In more severe cases, the inhaler may also contain steroids to reduce inflammation.
    • Vaccines for the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia, since people with COPD are at higher risk for serious problems from these diseases
    • Antibiotics if you get a bacterial or viral lung infection
  • Oxygen therapy, if you have severe COPD and low levels of oxygen in your blood. Oxygen therapy can help you breathe better. You may need extra oxygen all the time or only at certain times.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic breathing problems. It may include
    • An exercise program
    • Disease management training
    • Nutritional counseling
    • Psychological counseling
  • Surgery, usually as a last resort for people who have severe symptoms that have not gotten better with medicines:
    • For COPD that is mainly related to emphysema, there are surgeries that
      • Remove damaged lung tissue
      • Remove large air spaces (bullae) that can form when air sacs are destroyed. The bullae can interfere with breathing.
    • For severe COPD, some people may need lung transplant

If you have COPD, it's important to know when and where to get help for your symptoms. You should get emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking. Call your health care provider if your symptoms are getting worse or if you have signs of an infection, such as a fever.

Can COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) be prevented?

Since smoking causes most cases of COPD, the best way to prevent it is to not smoke. It's also important to try to avoid lung irritants such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, and dusts.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Emphysema

What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). COPD is a group of lung diseases that make it hard to breathe and get worse over time. The other main type of COPD is chronic bronchitis. Most people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but how severe each type is can be different from person to person.

Emphysema affects the air sacs in your lungs. Normally, these sacs are elastic or stretchy. When you breathe in, each air sac fills up with air, like a small balloon. When you breathe out, the air sacs deflate, and the air goes out.

In emphysema, the walls between many of the air sacs in the lungs are damaged. This causes the air sacs to lose their shape and become floppy. The damage also can destroy the walls of the air sacs, leading to fewer and larger air sacs instead of many tiny ones. This makes it harder for your lungs to move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of your body.

What causes emphysema?

The cause of emphysema is usually long-term exposure to irritants that damage your lungs and the airways. In the United States, cigarette smoke is the main cause. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke can also cause emphysema, especially if you inhale them.

Exposure to other inhaled irritants can contribute to emphysema. These include secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes or dusts from the environment or workplace.

Rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can play a role in causing emphysema.

Who is at risk for emphysema?

The risk factors for emphysema include

  • Smoking. This the main risk factor. Up to 75% of people who have emphysema smoke or used to smoke.
  • Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes and dusts from the environment or workplace.
  • Age. Most people who have emphysema are at least 40 years old when their symptoms begin.
  • Genetics. This includes alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a genetic condition. Also, smokers who get emphysema are more likely to get it if they have a family history of COPD.
What are the symptoms of emphysema?

At first, you may have no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, your symptoms usually become more severe. They can include

  • Frequent coughing or wheezing
  • A cough that produces a lot mucus
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Tightness in your chest

Some people with emphysema get frequent respiratory infections such as colds and the flu. In severe cases, emphysema can cause weight loss, weakness in your lower muscles, and swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs.

How is emphysema diagnosed?

Your health care provider may use many tools to make a diagnosis:

  • A medical history, which includes asking about your symptoms
  • A family history
  • Other tests tests, such as lung function tests, a chest x-ray or CT scan, and blood tests
What are the treatments for emphysema?

There is no cure for emphysema. However, treatments can help with symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and improve your ability to stay active. There are also treatments to prevent or treat complications of the disease. Treatments include

  • Lifestyle changes, such as
    • Quitting smoking if you are a smoker. This is the most important step you can take to treat emphysema.
    • Avoiding secondhand smoke and places where you might breathe in other lung irritants
    • Ask your health care provider for an eating plan that will meet your nutritional needs. Also ask about how much physical activity you can do. Physical activity can strengthen the muscles that help you breathe and improve your overall wellness.
  • Medicines, such as
    • Bronchodilators, which relax the muscles around your airways. This helps open your airways and makes breathing easier. Most bronchodilators are taken through an inhaler. In more severe cases, the inhaler may also contain steroids to reduce inflammation.
    • Vaccines for the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia, since people with emphysema are at higher risk for serious problems from these diseases
    • Antibiotics if you get a bacterial or viral lung infection
  • Oxygen therapy, if you have severe emphysema and low levels of oxygen in your blood. Oxygen therapy can help you breathe better. You may need extra oxygen all the time or only at certain times.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic breathing problems. It may include
    • An exercise program
    • Disease management training
    • Nutritional counseling
    • Psychological counseling
  • Surgery, usually as a last resort for people who have severe symptoms that have not gotten better with medicines. There are surgeries to
    • Remove damaged lung tissue
    • Remove large air spaces (bullae) that can form when air sacs are destroyed. The bullae can interfere with breathing.
    • Do a lung transplant. This is might be an option if you have very severe emphysema.

If you have emphysema, it's important to know when and where to get help for your symptoms. You should get emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking. Call your health care provider if your symptoms are getting worse or if you have signs of an infection, such as a fever.

Can emphysema be prevented?

Since smoking causes most cases of emphysema, the best way to prevent it is to not smoke. It's also important to try to avoid lung irritants such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, and dusts.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Chronic Bronchitis

What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). COPD is a group of lung diseases that make it hard to breathe and get worse over time. The other main type of COPD is emphysema. Most people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but how severe each type is can be different from person to person.

Chronic bronchitis is inflammation (swelling) and irritation of the bronchial tubes. These tubes are the airways that carry air to and from the air sacs in your lungs. The irritation of the tubes causes mucus to build up. This mucus and the swelling of the tubes make it harder for your lungs to move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of your body.

What causes chronic bronchitis?

The cause of chronic bronchitis is usually long-term exposure to irritants that damage your lungs and airways. In the United States, cigarette smoke is the main cause. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke can also cause chronic bronchitis, especially if you inhale them.

Exposure to other inhaled irritants can contribute to chronic bronchitis. These include secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes or dusts from the environment or workplace.

Rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can play a role in causing chronic bronchitis.

Who is at risk for chronic bronchitis?

The risk factors for chronic bronchitis include

  • Smoking. This the main risk factor. Up to 75% of people who have chronic bronchitis smoke or used to smoke.
  • Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes and dusts from the environment or workplace.
  • Age. Most people who have chronic bronchitis are at least 40 years old when their symptoms begin.
  • Genetics. This includes alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a genetic condition. Also, smokers who get chronic bronchitis are more likely to get it if they have a family history of COPD.
What are the symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

At first, you may have no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, your symptoms usually become more severe. They can include

  • Frequent coughing or a cough that produces a lot mucus
  • Wheezing
  • A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Tightness in your chest

Some people with chronic bronchitis get frequent respiratory infections such as colds and the flu. In severe cases, chronic bronchitis can cause weight loss, weakness in your lower muscles, and swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs.

How is chronic bronchitis diagnosed?

Your health care provider may use many tools to make a diagnosis:

  • A medical history, which includes asking about your symptoms
  • A family history
  • Various tests, such as lung function tests, a chest x-ray or CT scan, and blood tests
What are the treatments for chronic bronchitis?

There is no cure for chronic bronchitis. However, treatments can help with symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and improve your ability to stay active. There are also treatments to prevent or treat complications of the disease. Treatments include

  • Lifestyle changes, such as
    • Quitting smoking if you are a smoker. This is the most important step you can take to treat chronic bronchitis.
    • Avoiding secondhand smoke and places where you might breathe in other lung irritants
    • Ask your health care provider for an eating plan that will meet your nutritional needs. Also ask about how much physical activity you can do. Physical activity can strengthen the muscles that help you breathe and improve your overall wellness.
  • Medicines, such as
    • Bronchodilators, which relax the muscles around your airways. This helps open your airways and makes breathing easier. Most bronchodilators are taken through an inhaler. In more severe cases, the inhaler may also contain steroids to reduce inflammation.
    • Vaccines for the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia, since people with chronic bronchitis are at higher risk for serious problems from these diseases.
    • Antibiotics if you get a bacterial or viral lung infection
  • Oxygen therapy, if you have severe chronic bronchitis and low levels of oxygen in your blood. Oxygen therapy can help you breathe better. You may need extra oxygen all the time or only at certain times.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic breathing problems. It may include
    • An exercise program
    • Disease management training
    • Nutritional counseling
    • Psychological counseling
  • A lung transplant, as a last resort for people who have severe symptoms that have not gotten better with medicines

If you have chronic bronchitis, it's important to know when and where to get help for your symptoms. You should get emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking. Call your health care provider if your symptoms are getting worse or if you have signs of an infection, such as a fever.

Can chronic bronchitis be prevented?

Since smoking causes most cases of chronic bronchitis, the best way to prevent it is to not smoke. It's also important to try to avoid lung irritants such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, and dusts.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

What is pulmonary rehabilitation?

Pulmonary rehabilitation, also known as pulmonary rehab or PR, is a program for people who have chronic (ongoing) breathing problems. It can help improve your ability to function and quality of life. PR does not replace your medical treatment. Instead, you use them together.

PR is often an outpatient program that you do in a hospital or clinic. Some people have PR in their homes. You work with a team of health care providers to find ways to lessen your symptoms, increase your ability to exercise, and make it easier to do your daily activities.

Who needs pulmonary rehabilitation?

Your health care provider may recommend pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) if you have a chronic lung disease or another condition that makes it hard for you to breathe and limits your activities. For example, PR may help you if you

  • Have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The two main types are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In COPD, your airways (tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs) are partially blocked. This makes it hard to get air in and out.
  • Have an interstitial lung disease such as sarcoidosis and pulmonary fibrosis. These diseases cause scarring of the lungs over time. This makes it hard to get enough oxygen.
  • Have cystic fibrosis (CF). CF is an inherited disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to collect in the lungs and block the airways.
  • Need lung surgery. You may have PR before and after lung surgery to help you prepare for and recover from the surgery.
  • Have a muscle-wasting disorder that affects the muscles used for breathing. An example is muscular dystrophy.

PR works best if you start it before your disease is severe. However, even people who have advanced lung disease can benefit from PR.

What does pulmonary rehabilitation include?

When you first start pulmonary rehabilitation (PR), your team of health care providers will want to learn more about your health. You will have lung function, exercise, and possibly blood tests. Your team will go over your medical history and current treatments. They may check on your mental health and ask about your diet. Then they will work together to create a plan that is right for you. It may include

  • Exercise training. Your team will come up with an exercise plan to improve your endurance and muscle strength. You will likely have exercises for both your arms and legs. You might use a treadmill, stationary bike, or weights. You may need to start slowly and increase your exercise as you get stronger.
  • Nutritional counseling. Being either overweight or underweight can affect your breathing. A nutritious eating plan can help you work towards a healthy weight.
  • Education about your disease and how to manage it. This includes learning how to avoid situations that make your symptoms worse, how to avoid infections, and how/when to take your medicines.
  • Techniques you can use to save your energy. Your team may teach you easier ways to do daily tasks. For example, you may learn ways to avoid reaching, lifting, or bending. Those movements make it harder to breathe, since they use up energy and make you tighten your abdominal muscles. You may also learn how to better deal with stress, since stress can also take up energy and affect your breathing.
  • Breathing strategies. You will learn techniques to improve your breathing. These techniques may increase your oxygen levels, decrease how often you take breaths, and keep your airways open longer.
  • Psychological counseling and/or group support. It can feel scary to have trouble breathing. If you have a chronic lung disease, you are more likely to have depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems. Many PR programs include counseling and/or support groups. If not, your PR team may be able to refer you to an organization that offers them.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Smoking

What are the health effects of smoking?

There's no way around it; smoking is bad for your health. It harms nearly every organ of the body, some that you would not expect. Cigarette smoking causes nearly one in five deaths in the United States. It can also cause many other cancers and health problems. These include

  • Cancers, including lung and oral cancers
  • Lung diseases, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Damage to and thickening of blood vessels, which causes high blood pressure
  • Blood clots and stroke
  • Vision problems, such as cataracts and macular degeneration (AMD)

Women who smoke while pregnant have a greater chance of certain pregnancy problems. Their babies are also at higher risk of dying of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Smoking also causes addiction to nicotine, a stimulant drug that is in tobacco. Nicotine addiction makes it much harder for people to quit smoking.

What are the health risks of secondhand smoke?

Your smoke is also bad for other people - they breathe in your smoke secondhand and can get many of the same problems as smokers do. This includes heart disease and lung cancer. Children exposed to secondhand smoke have a higher risk of ear infections, colds, pneumonia, bronchitis, and more severe asthma. Mothers who breathe secondhand smoke while pregnant are more likely to have preterm labor and babies with low birth weight.

Are other forms of tobacco also dangerous?

Besides cigarettes, there are several other forms of tobacco. Some people smoke tobacco in cigars and water pipes (hookahs). These forms of tobacco also contain harmful chemicals and nicotine. Some cigars contain as much tobacco as an entire pack of cigarettes.

E-cigarettes often look like cigarettes, but they work differently. They are battery-operated smoking devices. Using an e-cigarette is called vaping. Not much is known about the health risks of using them. We do know they contain nicotine, the same addictive substance in tobacco cigarettes. E-cigarettes also expose non-smokers to secondhand aerosols (rather than secondhand smoke), which contain harmful chemicals.

Smokeless tobacco, such as chewing tobacco and snuff, is also bad for your health. Smokeless tobacco can cause certain cancers, including oral cancer. It also increases your risk of getting heart disease, gum disease, and oral lesions.

Why should I quit?

Remember, there is no safe level of tobacco use. Smoking even just one cigarette per day over a lifetime can cause smoking-related cancers and premature death. Quitting smoking can reduce your risk of health problems. The earlier you quit, the greater the benefit. Some immediate benefits of quitting include

  • Lower heart rate and blood pressure
  • Less carbon monoxide in the blood (carbon monoxide reduces the blood's ability to carry oxygen)
  • Better circulation
  • Less coughing and wheezing

NIH National Cancer Institute