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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a group of lung diseases that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema, often caused by heavy smoking or exposure to certain gases or fumes in the workplace. COPD can also include chronic asthma, which is a hypersensitivity of the air passages in the lungs. Bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma all have one thing in common—they limit the flow of air in and out of the lungs.

Breathing is the body’s way of getting oxygen into the blood. Normally, lungs take in oxygen when and exhale carbon dioxide. When a patient has COPD, movement of air into and out of the lungs is limited, and breathing becomes difficult.

There are more than 3 million new cases of COPD diagnosed each year in the United States.

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms often don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred, and they usually worsen over time, particularly if the patient continues smoking. For chronic bronchitis, the main symptom is a daily cough and mucus production for an extended period of time.

Other signs and symptoms of COPD may include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Morning throat clearing, due to excess mucus in the lungs
  • A chronic cough that may produce mucus
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy
  • Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
  • Swelling in ankles, feet or legs

People with COPD are also likely to experience episodes called exacerbations, during which their symptoms become worse than usual day-to-day variation and persist for at least several days.


If COPD is suspected, a consultation with a Deborah Heart and Lung Center physician is the first step. The physician will evaluate the patient’s medical history and symptoms and order the tests required to diagnose the condition.

The best test for COPD is a lung function test called spirometry. This involves blowing out as hard as possible into a small machine that tests lung capacity.

Using a stethoscope to listen to the lungs can also be helpful. But sometimes, the lungs sound normal, even when a person has COPD.

Imaging tests of the lungs, such as x-rays and CT scans may be ordered. With an x-ray, the lungs may look normal, even when a person has COPD. A CT scan will usually show signs of COPD.

Sometimes, a blood test called arterial blood gas may be done to measure the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.