Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, affecting 32 million people. It is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide. COPD is a chronic lung disease in which the lungs are damaged, making it harder to breathe. Men are more likely than women to develop the disease, and it occurs predominantly in individuals older than 40. However, recent studies reveal since the year 2000, the number of female deaths associated with COPD exceeds the number of male deaths. Chronic bronchitis, emphysema and in some cases, asthma are commonly associated with COPD.  

When breathing in, air travels down the trachea and into the bronchial tubes. From the bronchial tubes the air is carried through small air passages that branch off into each of the lungs. At the end of each of the branches are thousands of little air sacs known as alveoli. The airways and air sacs of healthy lungs are elastic, springing back to their normal shape after filling with air. With COPD, the airways and air sacs lose their elasticity and shape, making it harder for air to flow out of the lungs. The air sac walls are destroyed and the walls of the air passages thicken and produce an increased amount of mucus, blocking the airways.

There is no cure for COPD. The damage to the airways and lungs is irreversible. Fortunately, it is preventable. Smoking is the primary cause of COPD. Smokers are 10 times more likely to develop COPD than non-smokers. Exposure to secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s chance of getting the disease.

Another cause is exposure to indoor or outdoor pollutants.  A recent study found that 19.2 percent of COPD cases are connected to work-related exposure to toxic chemicals and pollutants. A rare genetic disorder called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency and other respiratory infections may be causes as well.

Symptoms such as persistent cough, increased mucus production, shortness of breath (especially during exercise), wheezing and a tight feeling in the chest are warning signs of the disease.

COPD is often mistaken for other conditions, such as “smoker’s cough.” It is sometimes under-diagnosed and mistreated for several reasons:

Symptoms are often dismissed as being related to aging. People often attribute reduced physical ability and shortness of breath to normal aging. Shortness of breath, wheezing and reduced stamina could indicate COPD and should not be ignored.

COPD is commonly confused with asthma. Studies have shown that some people with COPD have been misdiagnosed with asthma. Shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness are symptoms of both conditions. However, it is vital that COPD is correctly diagnosed and treated.

Symptoms can be misunderstood during the early stages. Smokers dismiss the shortness of breath and cough associated with smoking. Quitting will not eliminate the symptoms of COPD once the condition is present, but smoking cessation can help slow the progression of COPD and is always advised.

Although there is no cure for COPD, the symptoms can be manageable. Lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation, regular exercise and a healthy diet may improve shortness of breath and strengthen the body. Patients are encouraged to visit a physician to discuss medications and treatment options that may also be appropriate. If you are experiencing symptoms associated with COPD, seek medical attention early to reduce your risk of developing COPD.

(Editor’s Note: Rachel Kelly-Hornback, D.O., is a Family Medicine physician practicing with Northwest Allied Physicians.  Her office may be reached at 202-7770 or  HYPERLINK ""

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