This Is What COPD Looks Like in the Lungs

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a blanket term used to describe airflow obstruction—both chronic bronchitis (CB) and emphysema fall into this category. The primary risk factor for COPD is cigarette smoking.

There are notable differences in the appearance and function of healthy lungs and lungs that have become damaged due to COPD.


Illustration of Chronic Bronchitis

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Medical illustration of bronchitis

Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Chronic bronchitis is a condition in which the airways, or your bronchi, become inflamed. This leads to mucus build-up in the airways that gets progressively worse. The symptoms include:

  • Coughing spells
  • Coughing up mucus or phlegm
  • Feelings of breathlessness
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath

Smoking is a major risk factor for chronic bronchitis; however air pollution or toxins in the environment can be another cause.

Bronchitis can become a chronic condition in a person who smokes heavily. The inflammation is always present (because cigarette smoke is always present).

This illustration shows a build-up of inflammation that occurs in the mucus membrane that lines the bronchial tubes in a person with chronic bronchitis.


Illustration of Damaged Alveoli (Emphysema)

normal and damaged alveoli

Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

People with emphysema have a severely diminished ability to breathe because the alveoli in their lungs have become damaged. 

Alveoli are very tiny air pockets or sacs that are at the ends of the airways in our lungs. Alveoli sacs take oxygen from the air we breathe in and pass it through to the bloodstream. Carbon dioxide exits via the alveoli when we exhale. 

Over time, the toxins in cigarette smoke break down the walls between these tiny air pockets, creating bigger air sacs instead (as shown in the illustration). This is detrimental to breathing because bigger sacs mean less surface area for the gas/blood exchange. 

People with emphysema are not able to get enough oxygen out of the air they breathe, which is why they often have to supplement it with bottled air.

Emphysema is not a curable disease, but its progression can be slowed or even stopped if one quits smoking.


Picture of Normal Left Human Lung

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normal human lung

Matt Meadows / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Your lungs are one of the largest organs in the body. You have two lungs, the left and the right (the right one is slightly larger). Lungs are divided into lobes, balloon-like structures that receive air from the bronchial tubes. The left lung (pictured) has two lobes and the right lung has three.

A normal human lung is pink and spongy, filled with an intricate system of airways and thousands of tiny alveoli sacs.  


Picture of Human Right Lung With Emphysema

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

​human lung with emphysema

Matt Meadows / Photolibrary / Getty Images

This image shows a right human lung with emphysema and blackened by tar, which is a residue left behind from the chemicals in cigarette smoke.

The lungs become "floppier" and less spongy. The airways become more likely to collapse on themselves, which is why people with emphysema will often experience shortness of breath—they aren't able to blow air back out through the lungs.

Reducing Your Risk of COPD

Doctors recommend that you quit smoking to prevent COPD. Quitting can also prevent many other smoking-related illnesses like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and more.

Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke is another way to reduce your risk, in addition to avoiding chemicals in the air or dust particles at work or at home.

Many people ignore the early signs of COPD, like shortness of breath. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you're experiencing any symptoms of COPD.


COPD isn't curable, but there are ways to treat the symptoms and manage them, especially if it's detected early.


There are several different types of medication to help reduce COPD flare-ups and decrease mucus and inflammation. The type of medication a patient takes depends on their personal needs, which a doctor can determine.

A bronchodilator might be prescribed. It often comes in inhaler form and can help relax the muscles around the airways to improve breathing. Corticosteroids can decrease mucus production and help with swelling. Combination medicines—consisting of a corticosteroid, an anticholinergic, and a beta-agonist—may be prescribed.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection. COPD may make you more susceptible to pneumonia and the flu, so it's generally recommended that people with COPD receive vaccinations against these illnesses.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Oxygen Therapy

With pulmonary rehabilitation, a counselor will work with a person with COPD to improve their lung function and their quality of life. They will educate patients, teach them exercises to cope with limited lung capacity, and even give nutritional advice.

Oxygen therapy can also be beneficial. This is when an oxygen tank is used in a facility or in the person's home. Nasal prongs or a face mask connect to the tank and allow a patient to receive additional oxygen to help them breathe.


Not everyone is a candidate for surgery, but there are surgical options for some that can help improve their breathing.

  • Bullectomy: This is a procedure where a doctor removes the air sacs that form on the damaged alveoli.
  • Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS): For people with severe emphysema, this is a procedure where damaged lung tissue is removed to help the lungs function better.
  • Lung transplant: If lungs are damaged beyond repair, an evaluation is sometimes performed to determine if a patient is eligible to receive a lung transplant.

Alternative Treatments

There are complementary treatment methods like massage, acupuncture, and meditation that may help a person improve their mental health, which is often negatively affected by COPD.

As a result of the limitations their condition imposes on daily life, people with COPD often experience anxiety and depression.

Alternative treatments may help lessen anxiety, moderate the level of pain, and improve the outlook of people with COPD.

Palliative Care

Palliative care, also known as supportive care, is a group of specialists, social workers, doctors, and/or nurses who know the specifics of someone's case and work collaboratively to make sure their treatment goals are being met.

Palliative care often includes therapies to improve symptoms like shortness of breath, information on lifestyle changes you can make, and other strategies to better your quality of life.

A Word From Verywell

COPD negatively affects your lung health, but there are ways to lower your risk of developing it. If you smoke, quitting will start to improve your health right away. If you have COPD, be sure to work closely with your doctor and learn more about your treatment options like palliative care.

Though there is no cure for COPD, there are resources for you to manage your symptoms and potentially even return to some of the daily tasks you have trouble with due to your condition.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.