Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (patient information)

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease


What are the symptoms?

What are the causes?

Who is at highest risk?

When to seek urgent medical care?


Treatment options

Where to find medical care for Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?

Possible complications


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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Assistant Editor(s)-in-Chief: Alexandra M. Palmer


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the most common lung diseases. It makes it difficult to breathe. There are two main forms of COPD. They are Chronic bronchitis, defined by a long-term cough with mucus and Emphysema, defined by destruction of the lungs over time.

Most people with COPD have a combination of both conditions.

What are the symptoms of Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Symptoms of Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease include: cough with mucus, shortness of breath (dyspnea) that gets worse with mild activity, fatigue, frequent respiratory infections, and wheezing. Since the symptoms of COPD develop slowly, some people may be unaware that they are sick.

What causes Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. The more a person smokes, the more likely that person will develop COPD although some people smoke for years and never get COPD.

In rare cases, nonsmokers who lack a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin can develop emphysema.

Who is at highest risk?

Risk factors for COPD are:

  • Exposure to certain gases or fumes in the workplace
  • Exposure to heavy amounts of secondhand smoke and pollution
  • Frequent use of cooking gas without proper ventilation

When to seek urgent medical care?

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have a rapid increase in shortness of breath.


The best test for COPD is a simple lung function test called spirometry. This involves blowing out as hard as one can into a small machine that tests lung capacity. The test can be interpreted immediately and does not involve exercising, drawing blood, or exposure to radiation.

Using a stethoscope to listen to the lungs can also be helpful, although sometimes the lungs sound normal even when COPD is present.

Pictures of the lungs (such as X-rays and CT scans) can be helpful but sometimes look normal even when a person has COPD.

Sometimes it is necessary to do a blood test (call a “blood gas”) to measure the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

Treatment options

There is no cure for COPD. However, there are many things you can do to relieve symptoms and keep the disease from getting worse.

Persons with COPD must stop smoking. This is the best way to slow down the lung damage.

Medications used to treat COPD include:

In severe cases or during flare-ups, you may need to receive steroids by mouth or through a vein (intravenously).

Antibiotics are prescribed during symptom flare ups, because infections can make COPD worse.

Oxygen therapy at home may be needed if a person has a low level of oxygen in their blood. Pulmonary rehabilitation does not cure the lung disease, but it can teach you to breathe in a different way so you can stay active. Exercise programs such as pulmonary rehabilitation are also important to help maintain muscle strength in the legs so less demand is placed on the lungs when walking. These programs also teach people how to use their medicines most effectively.

Things you can do to make it easier for yourself around the home include:

  • Avoiding very cold air
  • Making sure no one smokes in your home
  • Reducing air pollution by eliminating fireplace smoke and other irritants

Eat a healthy diet with fish, poultry, or lean meat, as well as fruits and vegetables. If it is hard to keep your weight up, talk to a doctor or dietitian about getting foods with more calories.

Surgical treatments may include:

Medications to avoid

Patients diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease should avoid using the following medications:

  • Propafenone
  • Timolol
    If you have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, consult your physician before starting or stopping any of these medications.

Where to find medical care for Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Directions to Hospitals Treating Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?

This condition is a long-term (chronic) illness. The disease will get worse more quickly if one continues to smoke.

Patients with severe COPD will be short of breath with most activities and will be admitted to the hospital more often. These patients should talk with their doctor about the use of breathing machines and end-of-life care.

Possible complications

  • Irregular heart beats (arrhythmias)
  • Need for breathing machine and oxygen therapy
  • Right-sided heart failure or cor pulmonale (heart swelling and heart failure due to chronic lung disease)
  • Pneumonia
  • Pneumothorax
  • Severe weight loss and malnutrition


Not smoking prevents most COPD. Ask your doctor or healthcare provider about quit-smoking programs. Medicines are also available to help kick the smoking habit and the medicines are most effective if a person is motivated to quit.