February 28, 2023

What you need to know about COPD

Almost 16 million people in the United States have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Trouble breathing. Wheezing. Shortness of breath. These are just some of the symptoms of COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which affects nearly 16 million people in the United States. These individuals are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Mickey Sachdeva, MD, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at the Kaiser Permanente Fresno Medical Center, explains more about this increasingly common disease.

What is COPD?

COPD is a condition in which the airways in the lungs become inflamed, narrowed, and damaged. This affects the flow of air into, and especially out of, the lungs.

“At first, someone with COPD might not experience any symptoms,” said Dr. Sachdeva. “But as the disease gets worse, people often find that they feel winded even after doing simple things like getting dressed or preparing a meal.” Other symptoms can include wheezing, coughing, and spitting up phlegm. And when lung damage is extensive, it may become harder to get enough oxygen into the blood and to get rid of excess carbon dioxide.

What causes COPD?

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. You can also get COPD from breathing in toxic fumes or gases. In rare cases, COPD is caused by a genetic problem.

How is COPD diagnosed?

Spirometry is the lung function test used to diagnose COPD and assess how well your lungs are working. You take a deep breath and then blow out as fast and as hard as you can into a tube. A machine connected to the tube measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs and how fast you can blow.

How is COPD treated?

COPD cannot be cured and can get worse over time. But there are steps you can take to manage your symptoms and feel better. The best way to slow the disease is to stop smoking. “This is the most important thing you can do, and it’s never too late to quit,” said Dr. Sachdeva.

Other treatment options your physician may recommend include inhaled medications and pulmonary rehabilitation.   

What is it like to live with COPD?

Depending on the severity of your COPD, you may feel out of breath if you work hard or walk rapidly. You may also have trouble doing chores or even carrying items. Patients with COPD should avoid smoke and fumes, and exercise regularly. It’s also helpful to eat healthy foods and have several smaller meals a day.

How can I help someone living with COPD?

The best thing you can do to support someone with COPD is to encourage them to stop smoking. You can also help with chores and grocery shopping and encourage them to take their medications.

“People with COPD tend to isolate themselves because of their limited physical ability,” Dr. Sachdeva noted, “so visiting and spending time together can be important in keeping their spirits up.”

Learn more about COPD.