COPD Symptoms and Treatments

woman having trouble catching her breath
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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a term that describes a couple of respiratory diseases in which the airways and tiny air sacs (alveoli) inside the lungs are partially obstructed or destroyed.  These diseases are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

COPD damage occurs when a person breathes in lung irritants of some kind: smoke, chemicals, pollution, dust. The result is labored breathing due to lack of oxygen making it into the bloodstream.

How Our Lungs Work

The inside of our lungs look like upside down trees, with the trunks at the top, tapering down to tiny branches at the bottom. At the ends of the branches, there are many thousands of tiny round air sacs. In healthy people, the passageways to the sacs are clear and open. The sacs are bouncy and strong. When we take a breath, the sacs fill up like little balloons and deflate when we breathe out.

The walls of these tiny sacs allow oxygen from the air we breathe in to move through and into the bloodstream.  Similarly, the waste gas carbon dioxide passes through these walls from the bloodstream and out of our bodies when we exhale.

In lungs with COPD, the airways are partially blocked, and the air sacs are floppy and out of shape due to repeated exposure to the toxins in cigarette smoke. When a person breathes in, the sacs don't fill as well, resulting in shortness of breath.

One or all of these things may be happening inside of the lungs:

  • The airways and the air sacs have lost their springiness like an old rubber band might do.
  • The walls between many of the sacs have been destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick from inflammation
  • Cells in the airways are making more mucus (sputum)and the airways become partially clogged.

Chronics bronchitis occurs when the airways are chronically inflamed and thickened with excess mucus. The result is a habitual cough that may produce phlegm, along with difficulty breathing.

Emphysema evolves slowly.  As more and more of the walls between air sacs are destroyed, they break up into larger and fewer sacs. These bigger sacs have less surface area for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide than the many tiny ones. Poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide causes shortness of breath. As this disease advances, most people need extra bottled oxygen to help them get enough.

People with COPD often have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Many are smokers or former smokers.  Most people don't begin to show symptoms until they're 40 years of age or older. While the damage caused by emphysema is permanent, early intervention (smoking cessation) following diagnosis can slow the progression or even halt further damage.


  • Cough
  • Mucus production
  • Shortness of breath, especially with exercise
  • Wheezing (a whistling or rattle type noise) when you breathe in
  • Tightness in the chest

If you have any of the above symptoms of COPD, consult your doctor. The earlier this disease is diagnosed and treated, the better.


If you are diagnosed with COPD, there are different treatments available, depending on how severe your symptoms are. Treatment can and does improve quality of life for many people. While the disease is not reversible, it can be slowed and actions are taken to improve breathing.

Treatments include:

  • Bronchodilators. Short-acting bronchodilators last 4 to 6 hours with each dose and are used on an as-needed basis. Long-acting bronchodilators last about 12 hours and are used daily. Because bronchodilators are inhaled, the medicine goes directly into the lungs, where it's needed.
  • Inhaled glucocorticosteroids are steroids prescribed to some COPD patients to help reduce inflammation of the airways. A doctor might prescribe them for 6 weeks to 3 months initially to see if they are of any help.
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation is a program of combined exercise, disease management counseling and training to help the person become more active and do what they can to slow the progression of symptoms.
  • Oxygen treatment is used when the patient has severe COPD symptoms, known usually at this point as emphysema. The oxygen level in the blood is too low, causing breathlessness. Inhaling oxygen will help increase oxygen, which improves breathing. Depending on the need of the person, a doctor may advise using oxygen for part of the day, or all of the time.
  • Surgery is sometimes recommended when other treatments have not provided any relief.

COPD symptoms can worsen very quickly. When this happens, people may find that breathing suddenly becomes much more difficult; they might get a fever and experience more coughing and sputum that has changed colors. Be sure to get in touch with your doctor if this happens to you.

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek emergency help:

  • You have trouble talking or walking
  • You have a very fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Your lips or fingernails are gray or blue
  • Your breathing is fast and hard, even after you've used your medications

If you have COPD, it's a good idea to put together a list that includes the numbers of your doctor and hospital, as well as what medications you're taking. Make sure you also have the numbers of people who can take you to the doctor, if necessary. Put this list in a central location, like on the refrigerator. Let other family members know that it's there.

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