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COPD Awareness Month: What does life with COPD look like?

November 30, 2022
5 minutes
Personal Health
Chronic conditions

November is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) awareness month. COPD is an umbrella term describing progressive lung diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis. 

According to John Hopkins Medicine, “COPD affects more than 24 million Americans, yet many don’t even know they have it.” 

In today’s article, we’ll cover:

  • What COPD is
  • What causes it
  • Symptoms and signs
  • How it’s diagnosed 
  • Treatment options

Read on to learn more about COPD and how to take part in COPD awareness month.

What is COPD?

COPD is a chronic lung disease caused by long-term exposure to irritants. These irritants can lead to scarring and narrowing of the airways, destruction of the alveoli, and excess mucus buildup—all of which make it difficult to breathe.  

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the most common conditions that lead to COPD.

  • Emphysema occurs when alveoli—the air sacs in the lungs—become damaged. Over time, the air sacs can rupture, creating larger air spaces instead of many small ones. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and the amount of oxygen entering the bloodstream. 
  • Chronic bronchitis is long-term inflammation of the bronchi. Bronchi are large air passages that send air from the windpipe (trachea) to the lungs. This inflammation causes excess mucus production, among other things.

What causes COPD?

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD in developed countries. 

Worldwide, indoor air pollution—due to smoke from cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes—causes the majority of COPD cases, particularly in developing nations. 

While cigarette smoking is the major cause of COPD in the US, physicians have discovered that some people are at higher risk for COPD because they never developed completely “healthy lungs.” 

Why do some people not develop healthy lungs? 

Exposure to second-hand smoke or air pollution as a child or before birth can impair lung growth. Respiratory infections in childhood may also impact lung development. 

This means that those exposed to irritants during their early development can be more susceptible to the toxic effects of tobacco smoke and COPD.


What are common symptoms associated with COPD?

Symptoms of COPD are often missed until significant lung damage has occurred. Early on in the course of the disease, people may feel out of breath during exercise and chalk it up to being out of shape. Symptoms often worsen over time, especially with continued exposure to smoke or other irritants. 

Symptoms of COPD may include: 

  • Wheezing
  • Lack of energy
  • Chest tightness
  • Swelling in feet, legs, or ankles
  • Recurring respiratory infections 
  • Unintended weight loss in later stages
  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
  • Chronic coughing that may produce mucus (sputum) that’s clear, white, yellow, or greenish

After developing COPD, exposure to smoke, allergies, or illness can lead to episodes called exacerbations. During an exacerbation, symptoms become worse, even life threatening, and may continue for several days or weeks.  

How is COPD diagnosed? 

Many individuals aren’t properly diagnosed until the condition is fairly advanced.

To diagnose COPD, a doctor will look for the usual signs and symptoms. They’ll also ask about medical and family history and any past exposure to lung irritants. 

Afterward, there are several tests a doctor may order to diagnose the condition. Tests may include:

  • CT scans to help detect emphysema and assist in determining if a patient could benefit from surgery.
  • Chest X-rays to identify emphysema and rule out heart failure and other potential lung problems.
  • Laboratory tests may be used to determine the cause of symptoms and rule out any other possible conditions.
  • Arterial blood gas analysis, a blood test, to measure how well the lungs bring oxygen into the blood and remove carbon dioxide. 
  • Lung (pulmonary) function tests to measure the amount of air inhaled and exhaled and whether the lungs are delivering enough oxygen to the blood. During a spirometry test (the most common pulmonary function test), a person blows into a tube connected to a machine. The machine then measures how much air the lungs can hold, and how fast the person can blow out air from their lungs.

Treatment options 

Those with mild forms of COPD may need little intervention other than quitting smoking and avoiding air pollutants.

In more advanced stages, treatment can help:

  • Control symptoms
  • Slow disease progression 
  • Improve the ability to live an active life
  • Reduce the risk of complications and exacerbations 

If you’re a smoker, the most important step is to quit smoking to help avoid making the condition worse.

Your doctor can suggest the right interventions and medications, and help you learn how to handle relapses. Treatments include:

  • Medications: Bronchodilators and oral steroids are the most common medications. Bronchodilators help relax the muscles around the airways, which can make breathing easier by relieving coughing and shortness of breath. When COPD becomes more severe (during exacerbations), oral corticosteroids can be used to reduce inflammation and prevent worsening symptoms. 
  • Lung therapies: People with moderate to severe COPD may receive oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation programs (PRP). Oxygen therapy can help boost oxygen levels in the blood. Some people need oxygen therapy devices all day, while others use them only during activities or sleep. PRPs combine counseling, nutrition advice, and exercise training in an effort to reduce visits to the hospital, increase the ability to do daily activities, and improve quality of life. 
  • Surgery: When medications don’t provide relief, people may receive a lung volume reduction surgery, where small wedges of damaged tissue in the upper lungs are removed. For some people, this surgery can improve their quality of life and prolong survival. A complete lung transplant may be possible for people who meet certain criteria. A lung transplant can help people breathe and be active. However, it’s a major operation, and has many risks involved, including lifelong side effects of immune-suppressing medications. 

How to take part during national COPD awareness month

COPD is responsible for the loss of over 150,000 people each year in the United States. Despite this, COPD is ranked 176th for research funding. 

Here are three ways you can take part to help with COPD awareness: 

  • Educate yourself about COPD, what causes it, the symptoms and signs, and how it’s treated.
  • Tell people you know about what you’ve learned to spread awareness.
  • Share articles like this one on social media so others can learn about the risks and causes of COPD.
Chronic conditions
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