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Physician Chronicles

Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive

By Alan S. Peterson, MD
Walter L. Aument Family Health Center

What Is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (or COPD, for short) is a lung disease that causes you to have less air when you breathe. There are two main illnesses in COPD: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. 

Your lungs have two main parts: bronchial tubes (also called airways) and air sacs which are microscopic sacs at the end of the bronchial tubes where the oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged. When you breathe in, air moves through your airways and into your air sacs. Oxygen goes into your blood from your air sacs. Carbon dioxide comes out of the air sacs and is exhaled in your breath. 

If you have chronic bronchitis, the lining of your airways gets red and full of mucus. This blocks your airways and makes it hard to breathe. 

If you have emphysema, your air sacs are irritated. They get stiff and they can’t hold enough air. This makes it hard for you to get oxygen into your blood.

What Causes COPD?

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Sometimes things in the air that you breathe can cause COPD. Construction workers and miners are two examples of people whose jobs make it more likely for them to get COPD. Ask your doctor if you think you are breathing in things at work that might make it hard to breathe. 

How Do I Know If I Have COPD?

People with COPD usually cough up mucus and have trouble breathing. If you have these problems for a long time, and if you smoke or used to smoke, you might have COPD. Your doctor can tell you if you have COPD by asking you questions and examining you. You may also need special tests. These might include a chest x-ray and pulmonary function tests.

What Can I Do About My COPD?

There is no cure for COPD, but there are things you can do to feel better. If you smoke, the most important thing that you can do is quit. This can stop or at least slow down the damage to your lungs. Try not to be around people who are smoking.

Stay away from things in the air that make your sick (for example, dust or chemicals). Stay inside on high ozone days. Your doctor can give you medicine to make you feel better. Make sure you have had a pneumonia shot in the past. An annual flu shot is suggested.

Where Can I Get More Information?

Call your physician or provider. Other sources are The American Lung Association. Their local number is 397-5203. The national website for the American Lung Association is www.lungusa.org. Another source is the American Thoracic Society. Its website is www.thoracic.org and telephone number is (212) 315-8600. The last source would be the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease at www.goldcopd.com.

Dr. Peterson is a doctor of Family and Community Medicine at the Walter L. Aument Family Health Center, 317 S. Chestnut St., Quarryville.


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