COPD - Symptoms and causes (2023)

Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, mucus (sputum) production and wheezing. It's typically caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, most often from cigarette smoke. People with COPD are at increased risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer and a variety of other conditions.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common conditions that contribute to COPD. These two conditions usually occur together and can vary in severity among individuals with COPD.

Chronic bronchitis is inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. It's characterized by daily cough and mucus (sputum) production.

Emphysema is a condition in which the alveoli at the end of the smallest air passages (bronchioles) of the lungs are destroyed as a result of damaging exposure to cigarette smoke and other irritating gases and particulate matter.

Although COPD is a progressive disease that gets worse over time, COPD is treatable. With proper management, most people with COPD can achieve good symptom control and quality of life, as well as reduced risk of other associated conditions.

Symptoms

COPD symptoms often don't appear until significant lung damage has occurred, and they usually worsen over time, particularly if smoking exposure continues.

Signs and symptoms of COPD may include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • A chronic cough that may produce mucus (sputum) that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
  • Swelling in ankles, feet or legs

People with COPD are also likely to experience episodes called exacerbations, during which their symptoms become worse than the usual day-to-day variation and persist for at least several days.

When to see a doctor

Talk to your doctor if your symptoms are not improving with treatment or getting worse, or if you notice symptoms of an infection, such as fever or a change in sputum.

(Video) COPD - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

Seek immediate medical care if you can't catch your breath, if you experience severe blueness of your lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis) or a rapid heartbeat, or if you feel foggy and have trouble concentrating.

From Mayo Clinic to your inbox

Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

(Video) Chronic bronchitis (COPD) - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment & pathology

Request an Appointment at Mayo Clinic

Causes

The main cause of COPD in developed countries is tobacco smoking. In the developing world, COPD often occurs in people exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes.

Only some chronic smokers develop clinically apparent COPD, although many smokers with long smoking histories may develop reduced lung function. Some smokers develop less common lung conditions. They may be misdiagnosed as having COPD until a more thorough evaluation is performed.

How your lungs are affected

Air travels down your windpipe (trachea) and into your lungs through two large tubes (bronchi). Inside your lungs, these tubes divide many times — like the branches of a tree — into many smaller tubes (bronchioles) that end in clusters of tiny air sacs (alveoli).

The air sacs have very thin walls full of tiny blood vessels (capillaries). The oxygen in the air you inhale passes into these blood vessels and enters your bloodstream. At the same time, carbon dioxide — a gas that is a waste product of metabolism — is exhaled.

Your lungs rely on the natural elasticity of the bronchial tubes and air sacs to force air out of your body. COPD causes them to lose their elasticity and over-expand, which leaves some air trapped in your lungs when you exhale.

Emphysema

COPD - Symptoms and causes (1)

(Video) COPD // what causes it? COPD symptoms & diagnosis

Emphysema

In emphysema, the inner walls of the lungs' air sacs (alveoli) are damaged, causing them to eventually rupture. This creates one larger air space instead of many small ones and reduces the surface area available for gas exchange.

Bronchitis

COPD - Symptoms and causes (2)

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. People who have bronchitis often cough up thickened mucus, which can be discolored.

Causes of airway obstruction

Causes of airway obstruction include:

  • Emphysema. This lung disease causes destruction of the fragile walls and elastic fibers of the alveoli. Small airways collapse when you exhale, impairing airflow out of your lungs.
  • Chronic bronchitis. In this condition, your bronchial tubes become inflamed and narrowed and your lungs produce more mucus, which can further block the narrowed tubes. You develop a chronic cough trying to clear your airways.

Cigarette smoke and other irritants

In the vast majority of people with COPD, the lung damage that leads to COPD is caused by long-term cigarette smoking. But there are likely other factors at play in the development of COPD, such as a genetic susceptibility to the disease, because not all smokers develop COPD.

Other irritants can cause COPD, including cigar smoke, secondhand smoke, pipe smoke, air pollution, and workplace exposure to dust, smoke or fumes.

(Video) COPD Symptoms and Treatments

Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency

In about 1% of people with COPD, the disease results from a genetic disorder that causes low levels of a protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt). AAt is made in the liver and secreted into the bloodstream to help protect the lungs. Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency can cause liver disease, lung disease or both.

For adults with COPD related to AAt deficiency, treatment options include those used for people with more-common types of COPD. In addition, some people can be treated by replacing the missing AAt protein, which may prevent further damage to the lungs.

Risk factors

Risk factors for COPD include:

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke. The most significant risk factor for COPD is long-term cigarette smoking. The more years you smoke and the more packs you smoke, the greater your risk. Pipe smokers, cigar smokers and marijuana smokers also may be at risk, as well as people exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke.
  • People with asthma. Asthma, a chronic inflammatory airway disease, may be a risk factor for developing COPD. The combination of asthma and smoking increases the risk of COPD even more.
  • Occupational exposure to dusts and chemicals. Long-term exposure to chemical fumes, vapors and dusts in the workplace can irritate and inflame your lungs.
  • Exposure to fumes from burning fuel. In the developing world, people exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes are at higher risk of developing COPD.
  • Genetics. The uncommon genetic disorder alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is the cause of some cases of COPD. Other genetic factors likely make certain smokers more susceptible to the disease.

Complications

COPD can cause many complications, including:

  • Respiratory infections. People with COPD are more likely to catch colds, the flu and pneumonia. Any respiratory infection can make it much more difficult to breathe and could cause further damage to lung tissue.
  • Heart problems. For reasons that aren't fully understood, COPD can increase your risk of heart disease, including heart attack
  • Lung cancer. People with COPD have a higher risk of developing lung cancer.
  • High blood pressure in lung arteries. COPD may cause high blood pressure in the arteries that bring blood to your lungs (pulmonary hypertension).
  • Depression. Difficulty breathing can keep you from doing activities that you enjoy. And dealing with serious illness can contribute to the development of depression.

Prevention

Unlike some diseases, COPD typically has a clear cause and a clear path of prevention, and there are ways to slow the progression of the disease. The majority of cases are directly related to cigarette smoking, and the best way to prevent COPD is to never smoke — or to stop smoking now.

If you're a longtime smoker, these simple statements may not seem so simple, especially if you've tried quitting — once, twice or many times before. But keep trying to quit. It's critical to find a tobacco cessation program that can help you quit for good. It's your best chance for reducing damage to your lungs.

Occupational exposure to chemical fumes and dusts is another risk factor for COPD. If you work with these types of lung irritants, talk to your supervisor about the best ways to protect yourself, such as using respiratory protective equipment.

Here are some steps you can take to help prevent complications associated with COPD:

  • Quit smoking to help reduce your risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
  • Get an annual flu vaccination and regular vaccination against pneumococcal pneumonia to reduce your risk of or prevent some infections.
  • Talk to your doctor if you feel sad or helpless or think that you may be experiencing depression.

FAQs

COPD - Symptoms and causes? ›

Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, mucus (sputum) production and wheezing. It's typically caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, most often from cigarette smoke. People with COPD are at increased risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer and a variety of other conditions.

What is COPD usually caused by? ›

Smoking. Smoking is the main cause of COPD and is thought to be responsible for around 9 in every 10 cases. The harmful chemicals in smoke can damage the lining of the lungs and airways.

What 3 conditions make up COPD? ›

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. It includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD makes breathing difficult for the 16 million Americans who have this disease.

Can COPD go away? ›

There is no cure for COPD, but disease management can slow disease progression, relieve symptoms and keep you out of hospital. Treatment aims to prevent further damage, reduce the risk of complications and ease some of the symptoms. Treatment options include pulmonary rehabilitation, medicines and oxygen therapy.

What are 3 treatments for COPD? ›

You may take some medications on a regular basis and others as needed.
  • Bronchodilators. Bronchodilators are medications that usually come in inhalers — they relax the muscles around your airways. ...
  • Inhaled steroids. ...
  • Combination inhalers. ...
  • Oral steroids. ...
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. ...
  • Theophylline. ...
  • Antibiotics.
Apr 15, 2020

What is the life expectancy of COPD? ›

Many people will live into their 70s, 80s, or 90s with COPD.” But that's more likely, he says, if your case is mild and you don't have other health problems like heart disease or diabetes. Some people die earlier as a result of complications like pneumonia or respiratory failure.

How fast does COPD progress? ›

People with COPD may notice their cough and breathing improve within 1 to 9 months. When people quits moking, they experience the following bodily changes, according to the Canadian Lung Association: After 8 hours of being smoke-free, carbon monoxide levels are half those of a smoker.

What does the beginning of COPD feel like? ›

It often starts with a nagging cough. It could be dry, or you might have mucus that's clear, white, yellow, or green. You may also find that you're short of breath sometimes, especially if you push yourself.

What can cause COPD other than smoking? ›

Indoor and outdoor pollutants can cause COPD in people who don't smoke. Air pollution inside the home is the most common cause of COPD among people who don't smoke.
...
Long-term exposure to pollutants
  • secondhand cigarette smoke.
  • gases.
  • toxic fumes.
  • dust.
  • industrial fumes.
  • exhaust fumes from traffic.

Which of the following is the biggest contributing factor to COPD? ›

The most important risk factor for COPD is cigarette smoking. Almost all COPD cases are caused by cigarette smoking.

What are the 4 conditions of COPD? ›

Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, mucus (sputum) production and wheezing. It's typically caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, most often from cigarette smoke. People with COPD are at increased risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer and a variety of other conditions.

What are the early warning signs of COPD? ›

What are the early signs of COPD? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a severe and progressive lung condition. Early signs of the condition include a chronic cough, increased mucus, and tiredness. However, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can significantly improve a person's outlook.

Videos

1. How is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Diagnosed?
(NHLBI)
2. Recognize the early symptoms of COPD: Learn More Breathe Better
(NHLBI)
3. Dr. Jerry Krishnan on COPD Symptoms and Treatment
(UChicago Medicine)
4. KATV: Dr. Raul R. Ramirez Discusses Symptoms and Treatment of COPD
(CHI St. Vincent)
5. COPD: Signs and Symptoms
(AllHealthGo)
6. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Overview (types, pathology, treatment)
(Armando Hasudungan)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Virgilio Hermann JD

Last Updated: 01/15/2023

Views: 5646

Rating: 4 / 5 (41 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Virgilio Hermann JD

Birthday: 1997-12-21

Address: 6946 Schoen Cove, Sipesshire, MO 55944

Phone: +3763365785260

Job: Accounting Engineer

Hobby: Web surfing, Rafting, Dowsing, Stand-up comedy, Ghost hunting, Swimming, Amateur radio

Introduction: My name is Virgilio Hermann JD, I am a fine, gifted, beautiful, encouraging, kind, talented, zealous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.