Man coughing hero image

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Understanding COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is important in finding the best treatment for you. COPD is a group of lung diseases that makes it harder to breathe. COPD is also progressive, which means it can worsen over time.

Talk to your doctor about treatment and lifestyle changes that may help you manage your condition. If you’d like some help with the conversation, get the free guide.

Common Types

Chronic Bronchitis vs Emphysema

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two most common conditions of COPD. While they both make breathing difficult, they affect the lungs in different ways. It is possible to have both conditions in varying degrees.

  • Chronic Bronchitis

    Chronic bronchitis is a condition where the airways in the lungs are inflamed all the time. This causes: 

    • increased cough
    • reduced air flow

    Bronchitis may be considered chronic (or long-term) if a person coughs and produces excess mucus most days for at least 3 months in each of 2 consecutive years.

  • Emphysema

    Emphysema is a condition where the air sacs (alveoli) inside the lungs are affected. Healthy air sacs expand when you breathe in and return to their original size when you breathe out. But with emphysema:

    • air sacs have become enlarged
    • air sacs cannot return to normal size

    When air sacs are not emptying as they should, it causes air to become trapped, making it hard for air to enter.

COPD Causes & Risk Factors

These are some of the causes and factors that may put you at risk for developing COPD.

Cigarette icon

Smoking and secondhand smoke

CO2 icon

Air pollution

Pollution icon

Chemical fumes or dust

COPD Stages

COPD stages image

COPD can be mild, moderate, or severe.
To make this determination, your doctor will examine you, give you a breathing test (spirometry), and assess your medical history. Based on the amount of limited airflow from your breathing test, your doctor will see where you fall in the GOLD* classification and determine your COPD severity. There are 4 grades or stages in the GOLD classification, with 4 being the most severe. Your doctor will also evaluate your symptoms and previous flare-ups to determine where you stand with your COPD.

*GOLD stands for Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.

Visit COPD.com to learn more about COPD stages.

Symptoms & Flare-ups

Recognizing COPD symptoms

You probably know the COPD symptoms that are normal for you. But did you know that they can evolve or change over time? And sometimes they can be hard to recognize as COPD. Why? Because people may mistake symptoms for “getting older” in general. Or assume a symptom is caused by weight gain and not COPD.

If your current symptoms change or if you have new ones, don’t dismiss them—tell your doctor. And if you’re currently on a maintenance medication, your doctor may consider switching your treatment.

COPD symptoms include:

Difficulty breathing icon

Difficulty breathing

You may experience shortness of breath and/or wheezing during normal activity or while at rest. 

Chest tightness COPD symptoms icon

Chest tightness

You may have the feeling that something is squeezing or sitting on your chest, making it hard to breathe.

Coughing icon

Coughing up mucus

You may experience a change in the amount or color of mucus coughed up.

What’s a COPD flare-up?

A flare-up (or exacerbation) is when your usual COPD symptoms become much worse for several days or weeks (not simply when you need to use your rescue inhaler) and require one or more of the following:

  • Steroids (like prednisone)
  • Antibiotics
  • Emergency room visit
  • Hospital stay

Respiratory viral or bacterial infections cause many flare-ups. But triggers range from pollution to stress, and they can be different for everyone. Flare-ups often come on suddenly, so it helps to be prepared with a COPD plan. Partner with your doctor to create one. Remember, “toughing it out” is not a plan. It’s just tough. So be sure to tell your doctor how your COPD truly affects you.

Image of woman smiling