Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) - Symptoms & Causes

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow to and from the lungs.

COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and is a progressive disease that will worsen without treatment.

What are the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

COPD causes symptoms such as:

  • Chronic cough with phlegm or mucous
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, especially after physical exertion
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles or feet
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Tiredness or lack of energy
  • Wheezing

People with COPD may also experience episodes (known as exacerbations) when their symptoms become worse than usual. These episodes can last several days.

In later stages, COPD can also lead to unintended weight loss.

What causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

The leading cause of COPD is tobacco smoking, which includes second-hand exposure. It can also be caused by:

  • Indoor air pollution such as fumes from burning fuel for cooking or heat
  • Occupational exposure to dusts, fumes and chemicals
  • A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency

COPD can lead to complications such as:

  • Respiratory infections, which can further damage the lungs
  • Increased risk of heart diseases such as heart attack
  • Lung cancer
  • Pulmonary hypertension, or increased pressure in the arteries that bring blood to the lungs
  • Depression, which may arise if COPD symptoms get in the way of daily activities

How do you prevent chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

As COPD Is closely linked to smoking, the most effective prevention is to avoid smoking or to quit smoking immediately. Smoking cessation also helps reduce the risk for lung cancer and heart disease.

It is also possible to reduce the risk for COPD by using protective equipment to prevent exposure to occupational dusts, fumes and chemicals.

This page has been reviewed by our medical content reviewers.

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