What is COPD?

March 2017

Q: My mother has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). What is it? Can it be treated?

A: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a preventable and treatable disease that makes it difficult to empty air out of the lungs. This airflow obstruction can lead to shortness of breath or feeling tired because the person is working harder to breathe. COPD is a term that is used to include chronic bronchitis, emphysema or a combination of both conditions. Healthcare providers diagnose COPD based on both symptoms and test results. The single most important test to determine if a person has COPD is spirometry.

The condition can be caused by many factors, although the most common cause is cigarette smoke. Heavy exposure to certain dusts at work, chemicals, and indoor or outdoor air pollution can contribute to COPD. The reason why some smokers never develop COPD and some non-smokers get COPD is not fully understood. Hereditary factors probably play a role, researchers say.

The first and most important treatment in smokers is to stop smoking.

Medications are usually prescribed to widen the airways (bronchodilators), reduce swelling in the airways (anti-inflammatory drugs, such as steroids) and/or treat infection (antibiotics).

Source: American Thoracic Society

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