Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey
195 Little Albany Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08903-2681
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the gradual loss of your ability to breathe effectively.
Normally, as you inhale, air moves freely through your trachea, or windpipe, then through large tubes called bronchi,
smaller tubes called bronchioles, and finally into tiny sacs called alveoli.
Small blood vessels called capillaries surround your alveoli.
Oxygen from the air you breathe passes into your capillaries, then carbon dioxide from your body passes out of your capillaries
into your alveoli so that your lungs can get rid of it when you exhale.
Normally, your airways and alveoli are flexible and springy.
When you inhale, each air sac inflates like a small balloon. And when you exhale, the sacs deflate.
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD.
However, it may also be caused by long term exposure to other lung irritants,
such as air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust.
If you have COPD, you have the two main conditions that make up the disease — emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
In emphysema, your airways and air sacs lose their flexibility, making it harder for them to expand and contract.
Emphysema destroys some of your air sac walls,
leading to fewer, larger sacs that provide less area to absorb oxygen from the air you breathe.
The symptoms of emphysema include: wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in your chest.
With chronic bronchitis, damage inside your airways causes the lining to swell, thicken, and make mucus.
You develop a persistent cough as your body attempts to get rid of the extra mucus.
The symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:
an ongoing cough that produces a lot of mucus, shortness of breath, and frequent respiratory infections.
The damage done to your lungs by COPD cannot be reversed, and there is no cure for the disease.
However, treatment can slow the progress of your disease and help you feel better.
The most common treatments are: quitting smoking; use of inhaled medicines to open your airways and reduce swelling;
antibiotics for bronchitis caused by bacterial infection;
oxygen therapy, for those with advanced COPD and severely low levels of oxygen in their blood;
and surgery, such as a bullectomy or lung volume reduction surgery to remove non-functioning air sacs.
The best way to prevent yourself from getting COPD is to never smoke.
If you are a smoker, quitting smoking reduces the chance you'll develop COPD.
You can also limit your exposure to chemicals, fumes, and dusts that may cause COPD.