The Facts About COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. This disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness.

Many people mistake their increased breathlessness and coughing as a normal part of aging. In the early stages of the disease, you may not notice the symptoms. COPD can develop for years without noticeable shortness of breath. You begin to see the symptoms in the more developed stages of the disease. That’s why it is important that you talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any of these symptoms. Ask your doctor about taking a spirometry test.

What are the signs and symptoms of COPD?

  • Increased breathlessness
  • Frequent coughing (with and without sputum)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

How common is COPD?

COPD affects an estimated 24 million individuals in the U.S., and over half of them have symptoms of COPD and do not know it. Early screening can identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.

What are the risk factors and common causes of COPD?

Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants; that includes smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.), and second-hand smoke.

Fumes, chemicals and dust found in many work environments are contributing factors for many individuals who develop COPD.

Genetics can also play a role in an individual’s development of COPD—even if the person has never smoked or has ever been exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace.


Here is more information on the top three risk factors for developing COPD:


COPD most often occurs in people 40 years of age and older who have a history of smoking. These may be individuals who are current or former smokers. While not everybody who smokes gets COPD, most of the individuals who have COPD (about 90% of them) have smoked.

Environmental Factors

COPD can also occur in those who have had long-term contact with harmful pollutants in the workplace. Some of these harmful lung irritants include certain chemicals, dust, or fumes. Heavy or long-term contact with secondhand smoke or other lung irritants in the home, such as organic cooking fuel, may also cause COPD.

Genetic Factors

Even if an individual has never smoked or been exposed to pollutants for an extended period of time, they can still develop COPD. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD) is the most commonly known genetic risk factor for emphysema2. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin related COPD is caused by a deficiency of the Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein in the bloodstream. Without the Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein, white blood cells begin to harm the lungs and lung deterioration occurs. The World Health Organization and the American Thoracic Society recommends that every individual diagnosed with COPD be tested for Alpha-1. For more information about AATD and how to get tested, visit the ALPHA-1 FOUNDATION WEBSITE or call 1-877-2 CURE-A1.

Because not all individuals with COPD have AATD, and because some individuals with COPD have never smoked, it is believed that there are other genetic predispositions to developing COPD.   To find out more, visit the COP Foundation.

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