Understanding COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Understanding COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD: Explained

What Is COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease ?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease in which the lungs are damaged, making it hard to breathe. In COPD, the airways (airways are tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs) are partly obstructed, making it difficult to get air in and out.

Emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of COPD. Most people with COPD are smokers or former smokers. Breathing in other kinds of lung irritants, like pollution, dust, or chemicals, over a long period of time may also cause or contribute to COPD.

The airways branch out like an upside down tree, and at the end of each branch are many small, balloon-like air sacs called alveoli. In healthy people, each airway is clear and open. The air sacs are small and dainty, and both the airways and air sacs are elastic and springy. When you breathe in, each air sac fills up with air like a small balloon; when you breathe out, the balloon deflates and the air goes out.

In COPD, the airways and air sacs lose their shape and become floppy. Less air gets in and less air goes out because:

  • The airways and air sacs lose their elasticity (like an old rubber band).
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed (swollen).
  • Cells in the airways make more mucus (sputum) than usual, which tends to clog the airways.


The illustration shows the respiratory system and cross-sections of healthy alveoli and alveoli with COPD.

COPD develops slowly, and it may be many years before you notice symptoms like feeling short of breath. Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed in middle-aged or older people.

COPD is a major cause of death and illness, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and throughout the world.

There is no cure for COPD. The damage to your airways and lungs cannot be reversed, but there are things you can do to feel better and slow the damage.

COPD is not contagious – you cannot catch it from someone else.

Other Names for COPD
  • Chronic Obstructive Airway Disease
  • Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease

In the United States, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) includes:

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic bronchitis

In the emphysema type of COPD, the walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed, leading to a few large air sacs instead of many tiny ones.

Consequently, the lung looks like a sponge with many large bubbles or holes in it, instead of a sponge with very tiny holes. The large air sacs have less surface area for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide than healthy air sacs. Poor exchange of the oxygen and carbon dioxide causes shortness of breath.

In chronic bronchitis, the airways have become inflamed and thickened, and there is an increase in the number and size of mucus-producing cells. This results in excessive mucus production, which in turn contributes to cough and difficulty getting air in and out of the lungs.

Most people with COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Content Created/Medically Reviewed by our Expert Doctors