problems breathing

If you are experiencing shortness of breath, coughing, recurring chest infections, or bronchitis, you may have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, often called COPD.

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. More than 11 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, but millions more may have the disease without knowing it, according to the American Lung Association.

What Defines COPD?

COPD is group of lung diseases that include:

You may not notice the symptoms of COPD in its early stages, but you’ll begin to experience symptoms first with exercise. As the disease progresses, symptoms will become more pronounced and affect you at all times.

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What Are the Risk Factors of COPD?

Most cases of COPD are caused by tobacco smoking, although inhalation of pollutants, fumes, and chemicals found in the environment or workplace also may cause it. Genetics also is a contributing factor for COPD.

COPD Signs and Symptoms

These signs should prompt you to call your doctor:

  • Increased breathlessness (at first only with exertion).
  • Frequent coughing (with and without sputum).
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Swelling in the ankles and feet that is new or will not go away after a night’s rest with your feet up.
  • Fever with cold or flu symptoms.
  • Unexplained weight loss of 2 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week.
  • Recurring morning headaches or dizziness.
  • Extreme fatigue lasting more than a day.

How Would I Get Diagnosed for COPD?

If you think you’re experiencing COPD symptoms, see your doctor immediately. Left untreated, your COPD could worsen drastically.

Ask your doctor about taking a spirometry test. This test measures how well your lungs are working. You will be asked to blow all the air out of your lungs into a spirometer, which calculates the total amount of air you blow out and how fast you can blow it. Your doctor will examine your nose and throat, and listen to your heart and lungs. Your doctor also may suggest a pulse-oximetry test to measure the percentage of oxygen in your blood; an electrocardiogram, also called an ECG or EKG, to check your heart function; arterial blood gases to monitor the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels; and/or an exercise test to determine if the oxygen level in your blood drops while you’re exercising.

While there is no cure for COPD, treatments can improve symptoms and help you have a better quality of life.

What Are the Treatments for COPD?

  • Smoking cessation is critical to prevent further decline in lung function.
  • Influenza shots and pneumococcal vaccination are essential.
  • Regular maintenance inhalers, including bronchodilators with or without corticosteroids, can help open the airway and prevent flare-ups.
  • Regular exercise and pulmonary rehab can further improve quality of life.
  • A minority of patients also can benefit from using oxygen tanks.

Surgery may be needed for advanced COPD in cases where damaged lung tissue remains. With a surgical option, part of the most damaged areas of both lungs are removed, making room for the rest of the lung to work better. A lung transplant may be necessary in the most severe cases.

Find more information by visiting the website for UPMC Pulmonology and Respiratory Services.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC

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