The Definition of COPD and What It Means for You

Quincy AdamCOPD Learn

The term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a family of diseases that impacts lung function.

If you suffer from COPD, you may experience difficulty breathing, chest tightness, a lack of energy, and a chronic cough, among other symptoms. It is called a progressive disease because over time, the condition can worsen, making treatment necessary to minimize damage and relieve your symptoms.

What Does COPD Mean for Your Lungs?

The lungs rely on a series of airways and air sacs to transport air from one part of the body to another. In COPD patients, less air is able to move in and out because of damage to the airway itself, air sacs, or the walls between the airways or air sacs.

Smoking: The Main Culprit behind COPD

While environmental pollutants or genetic factors can be a cause, smoking is the leading cause of COPD, according to the National Heart and Lung and Blood Institute.1

However, the disease doesn’t affect every smoker. The best preventive measure for COPD is to avoid smoking cigarettes. Smokers who experience persistent coughs or chronic bouts of bronchitis should see a doctor as soon as possible, since early diagnosis is the key to preventing the progression of the disease.

Two Common Conditions Included in the COPD Family

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two main forms of COPD. Together, they are the third-leading cause of death in the United States, with many patients not even realizing they have either condition.3

1.) Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes that may result in temporary spells of coughing and chest tightness. However, in some instances bronchitis becomes chronic, with the condition coming back repeatedly over the course of an entire lifetime. When it does, it falls within the definition of COPD. With chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tubes create excess mucus, obstructing the ability to breathe and introducing the possibility of an infection.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

A persistent cough often accompanies chronic bronchitis and, in time, the lungs may become scarred. Unfortunately, for people who smoke, this is often dismissed as a “smoker’s cough,” without many realizing they have something much more serious.


If you have chronic bronchitis and it’s caught early enough, you can enjoy many years of relatively good health, especially if you stop smoking. Approximately half of smokers who have been diagnosed as having chronic bronchitis stop coughing within one month of kicking the habit.6

Depending on the severity of the damage and compliance with therapy, after quitting smoking, the mucus buildup related to it may improve … meaning that you should be able to breathe better. Often, steroids, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory agents will be used to reduce infections and relieve symptoms. If you are a smoker who wants to quit, you should consult with your doctor to find out the best option for you.

2.) Emphysema

The Symptoms

If you have emphysema, you’re likely to suffer from an ongoing shortness of breath, which is related to the damage to your air sacs. In healthy lungs, the air sacs appear in clusters but emphysema weakens those air sacs, causing them to rupture over time. The result is that instead of multiple clusters, you will have one big air space. This reduces the amount of oxygen getting into your bloodstream, resulting in symptoms like shortness of breath and blue fingernails.

Over time, the shortness of breath may become worse until eventually you don’t even have to exert yourself to have difficulty breathing.


Unfortunately, the effects of emphysema can’t be reversed with treatment. Once the damage is done, it can’t be repaired. However, treatment may slow the progression of emphysema, giving you many years of productive breathing.

You may be told to exercise despite feeling short of breath since exercise can help to improve lung capacity and make breathing easier. Of course, smoking is expressly forbidden in emphysema patients and doctors often recommend avoiding pollutants and airborne irritants if possible. Emphysema patients should also avoid catching illnesses by frequently washing their hands and getting flu and pneumonia shots each year.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are included within the definition of COPD. The treatment options for any version of COPD depend on the disease’s progression, as well as the symptoms the patient is experiencing. However, with the right lifestyle changes and treatment schedule, a patient can reduce symptoms and live a productive life. If you are experiencing symptoms that you think might be related to COPD, talk to your doctor.

1 “What Causes COPD?” Accessed April 20, 2016.

3 Emphysema Causes: Smoking, Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, and More. (n.d.). Accessed March 20, 205.

6 Chronic Bronchitis Symptoms, Causes, Treatment – What is the outlook (prognosis) for chronic bronchitis? – MedicineNet. (n.d.). Accessed March 20, 2015.