What is COPD?

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It means the airways in your lungs are blocked (obstructed). Because of this, it is hard to breathe. You may have trouble with daily activities because of shortness of breath. Over time the shortness of breath usually worsens making it more and more difficult to take care of yourself and take part in activities. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two common types of COPD.

Image showing blocked airways

What happens in chronic bronchitis?

The cells in the airways make more mucus than normal. The mucus builds up, narrowing the airways. This means less air travels into and out of the lungs. The lining of the airways may also become inflamed (swollen) and causes the airways to narrow even more.

Image showing collapsed airways

What happens in emphysema?

The small airways are damaged and lose their stretchiness. The airways collapse when you exhale, causing air to get trapped in the air sacs. This means that less oxygen enters the blood vessels and less oxygen is delivered to all of the cells of your body. This makes it hard to breathe.

Image showing damaged cilia
A microscopic view of damaged cilia

Damage to cilia

Cilia are small hairs that line and protect the airways. Smoking damages the cilia. Damaged cilia can’t sweep mucus and particles away. Some of the cilia are destroyed. This damage worsens COPD.

How did I get COPD?

Most people get COPD from smoking. Cigarette smoke damages lungs, which can develop into COPD over many years.

How COPD affects you

COPD makes you work harder to breathe. Air may get trapped in the lungs, which prevents your lungs from filling completely when you inhale (breathe in). It’s harder to take deep breaths. Over time, your lungs may become enlarged. This makes it more difficult for the lungs to expand fully in the chest. These problems cause you to have shortness of breath (also called dyspnea). Wheezing (hoarse, whistling breathing), chronic cough, and fatigue (feeling tired and worn out) are also common.

Online Medical Reviewer: Akin, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Last Review Date: 6/30/2014
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