Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is an inflammatory disease that limits airflow to the lungs. Older adults, especially women, are at increased risk for this common, often preventable disease.
COPD is progressive, meaning it gets worse over time. But is COPD fatal? In fact, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 120,000 people each year.
About 16 million people have COPD, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Yet many people with COPD aren’t aware they have it.
Read on to learn what causes COPD, who’s at risk for it, how to identify early signs of COPD, and how it’s treated.
Cigarette smoking is a key factor in the development and progression of COPD. Pipe, cigar, and other forms of tobacco smoke — as well as secondhand smoking — can also cause COPD. Other factors that contribute to COPD include respiratory infections, genetic conditions, and exposure to air pollutants like chemical fumes or dusts.
Talk with a Senior Living Advisor
Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common conditions that contribute to COPD. These conditions usually occur together in people with COPD. They cause chronic inflammation, narrowing of the airways, and damage to the alveoli, which are small air sacs in the lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place.
Risk factors for COPD include:
Quitting smoking is a key part of COPD prevention. If your aging loved one smokes, make sure they get proper help from their doctor to stop smoking tobacco products.
Many people with COPD don’t know they have it until there’s significant damage to the lungs. This is because early signs of COPD may not be noticeable and therefore easier to dismiss.
For example, if your loved one experiences shortness of breath while being physically active, they may simply reduce their daily activity. As a result, your family member may not think they need to see a doctor until COPD has progressed and symptoms are more severe.
Early on, people with COPD may experience:
Other signs and symptoms of COPD may include:
Not everyone who has shortness of breath and a productive cough has COPD. Other respiratory conditions, such as asthma, may cause similar symptoms.
Your loved one’s doctor will ask about their symptoms, family history, and lifestyle. The doctor may ask if your parent smokes or has had contact with other pollutants or lung irritants at work or at home.
The doctor will perform a physical exam and listen to your loved one’s lungs. They may also order tests to check your parent’s lung function.
Spirometry is a common test for people with signs and symptoms of COPD. This simple test measures how much air your loved one can breathe in and out, and how fast they can breathe air out. The doctor may use spirometry to detect COPD, determine its severity, and set treatment goals.
The doctor may also order other lung function tests, blood tests, or imaging tests, such as a chest X-ray or a chest CT scan. If the cause of your family member’s symptoms is unclear, imaging tests can help the doctor narrow down the diagnosis.
There’s no cure for COPD, but treatment can help relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. Lifestyle changes can also help your loved one feel better, slow the progression of the disease, and prevent complications.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. COPD. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/copd.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basics About COPD. https://www.cdc.gov/copd/basics-about.html.
King Han ML, et al. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Definition, clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-definition-clinical-manifestations-diagnosis-and-staging.
Ferguson GT, Make B. Stable COPD: Initial pharmacologic management. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/stable-copd-initial-pharmacologic-management.
Angelike Gaunt is a content strategist at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.