Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. The more a person smokes, the more likely that person will develop COPD. However, some people smoke for years and never get COPD.
In rare cases, nonsmokers who lack a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin can develop emphysema.
Other 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 fire without proper ventilation
Cough, with or without mucus
Many respiratory infections
Shortness of breath (dyspnea) that gets worse with mild activity
Trouble catching one's breath
Because the symptoms of COPD develop slowly, some people may not know that they are sick.
Signs and tests
The best test for COPD is a lung function test called spirometry. This involves blowing out as hard as possible into a small machine that tests lung capacity. The results can be checked right away, and the test does not involve exercising, drawing blood, or exposure to radiation.
Using a stethoscope to listen to the lungs can also be helpful. However, 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 (especially chest x-ray).
Sometimes patients need to have a blood test (called arterial blood gas) to measure the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
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:
Inhalers (bronchodilators) to open the airways, such as ipratropium (Atrovent), tiotropium (Spiriva), salmeterol (Serevent), formoterol (Foradil), or albuterol
Inhaled steroids to reduce lung inflammation
Anti-inflammatory medications such as montelukast (Singulair) and roflimulast are sometimes used
In severe cases or during flare-ups, you may need to receive:
Steroids by mouth or through a vein (intravenously)
Bronchodilators through a nebulizer
Assistance during breathing from a machine (through a mask, BiPAP, or endotracheal tube)
Antibiotics are prescribed during symptom flare-ups, because infections can make COPD worse.
You may need oxygen therapy at home if you have a low level of oxygen in your 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 can help maintain muscle strength in the legs.
Walk to build up strength.
Ask the doctor or therapist how far to walk.
Slowly increase how far you walk.
Try not to talk when you walk if you get short of breath.
Use pursed lip breathing when breathing out (to empty your lungs before the next breath)
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 getting rid of 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 eating foods with more calories.
Surgery may be used, but only a few patients benefit from these surgical treatments:
Surgery to remove parts of the diseased lung can help other areas (not as diseased) work better in some patients with emphysema
Lung transplant for severe cases
People often can help ease the stress of illness by joining a support group in which members share common experiences and problems.
COPD is a long-term (chronic) illness. The disease will get worse more quickly if you do not stop smoking.
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 breathing machines and end-of-life 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.
Not smoking prevents most COPD. Ask your doctor or health care provider about quit-smoking programs. Medicines are also available to help kick the smoking habit. The medicines are most effective if you are motivated to quit.
Hoogendoorn M, Feenstra TL, Hoogenveen RT, Rutten-van MÃ¶lken MP. Long-term effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of smoking cessation interventions in patients with COPD. Thorax. 2010;65(8):711-718.
Agarwal R, Aggarwal AN, Gupta D, Jindal SK. Inhaled corticosteroids vs placebo for preventing COPD exacerbations: a systematic review and metaregression of randomized controlled trials. Chest. 2010; 137(2):318-325.
Shapiro SD, Reilly JJ Jr., Rennard SI. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al. Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 39.
Denis Hadjiliadis MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.