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Canadian Med Center

Understanding Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Friday 23 February 2024
8 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is COPD?

II. Causes of COPD

III. Treating COPD

IV. Breathing Exercises

V. Conclusion

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with COPD, you're not alone. In the U.S. alone, COPD affects more than 16 million Americans. [1] Globally, COPD stands as the third leading cause of death. [2]

In this article, we'll discuss everything you need to know about COPD. We'll dive into its definition, causes, treatment, and management.

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term encompassing two chronic lung diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These conditions cause inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult for individuals to breathe properly. Many people with COPD have one or both diseases. [3]

  • Emphysema damages the tiny air sacs, called alveoli, in the lungs. Usually, these alveoli expand and contract like balloons as we breathe. However, with emphysema, the alveoli become stiff and lose their ability to stretch. This leads to trapped air within the lungs, making inhaling challenging.
  • Chronic bronchitis irritates and inflames the airways, resulting in the production of excess mucus. This excessive mucus blocks the airflow through the airways, leading to coughing and breathlessness. [3]

In a healthy respiratory system, air flows easily in and out of the lungs. Oxygen is brought in, and carbon dioxide leaves the body. However, with COPD, airflow is obstructed in several ways. [4]

  • Inflammation and thickening of the airways lead to narrowing and blockage. 
  • Damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The walls between alveoli break down, reducing the surface area available for gas exchange.
  • The airways and alveoli lose their ability to stretch and contract back to their original shape.
  • Excess mucus production can clog up the airways and further block airflow. [4]

Because of this reduced airflow, less oxygen enters the lungs and bloodstream, and more carbon dioxide remains in the body. This makes it difficult for organs and tissues to function properly. [4]

Unfortunately, the damage to the lungs from COPD cannot be reversed, though treatment can help manage symptoms and slow the progression. Removing irritants, such as smoking, can help prevent further damage but does not undo existing damage. [5]

Symptoms of COPD can include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
  • Feeling tired
  • A cough that lasts longer than three months
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Taking longer to recover from infections such as a cold, flu, or pneumonia [3]

Causes of COPD

man lighting up a cigarette

Understanding the causes of COPD can help you better manage this chronic lung disease. COPD results from long-term damage and inflammation in the lungs, most often from cigarette smoke exposure. However, other factors like genetics, occupational hazards, and air pollution also play a role. [6]


The leading cause of COPD is smoking, accounting for a staggering 75% of all COPD cases. When a cigarette burns, it releases over 7,000 harmful chemicals, not only affecting the smoker but also those exposed to second-hand smoke. These chemicals impair lung function in several ways: [6]

  • Weakens your lungs’ defense against infections
  • Narrows airways, which leads to difficulty breathing
  • Leads to airway swelling
  • Destroys air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs [6]

Occupational Exposures

Occupational exposures to chemicals, dust, and fumes also contribute to COPD development. About 14% of all COPD cases and 30% of COPD cases in never smokers are caused by workplace exposures. Jobs with high risks include: [7]

  • Asbestos in steelworks, finishing mills, and blast furnace industries
  • Aerosol paint in automotive repair shops
  • Pesticide use among farmers
  • Dust and ash exposure for non-construction laborers [7]

Air Pollution

Air pollution is another key factor that can exacerbate the symptoms of COPD and negatively affect lung function. Prolonged exposure to particulate matter, which includes dust, tobacco smoke, diesel emissions, pollen, pet dander, mold spores, and various industrial and environmental pollutants, increases the likelihood of developing COPD. [8]

These tiny particles can penetrate the lungs, causing irritation, corrosion, and long-term damage. In some cases, they may even enter the bloodstream, compromising overall health. [8]

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency

In some cases, COPD results from a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (ATT) deficiency. This condition occurs when the body does not produce enough of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin, which is responsible for protecting the lungs. Without sufficient protein levels, the lungs become more susceptible to smoking, pollution, and environmental dust damage. [9]

Identifying this deficiency within families is crucial, as early detection can help prevent the onset of COPD or other lung diseases. [9]

Treating COPD

inhalers for COPD treatment

COPD is a lifelong condition that affects your breathing and quality of life every day. While there is no cure, with the right treatment plan and lifestyle changes, you can manage your symptoms and slow the progression of COPD. The key is to partner with your healthcare team to find the right approach tailored to your needs.

Lifestyle Changes

Simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference in managing COPD. Here are some tips:

  • If you smoke, quitting can dramatically improve your lung function and breathing over time.
  • Get vaccinated against the flu to avoid infections that could further damage your lungs. An annual flu shot is highly recommended.
  • Look at your work environment and talk to your employer if you're frequently exposed to dust, fumes, or other lung irritants. Solutions like wearing a mask can reduce damage.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can ease COPD symptoms like shortness of breath. [10]


Various medications are available to treat COPD, and your doctor will determine the best treatment plan based on your needs and the severity of your symptoms. You may use a combination of quick-relief and long-acting medications.

  • Quick relief (short-acting) medications work rapidly to relax your airways, making it easier for you to breathe. If you experience any symptoms, taking these medications as directed is important.
  • Long-acting medications reduce swelling and inflammation in your airways, preventing symptoms from occurring. It is essential to take these medications daily, regardless of symptoms. [11]

Some common medication types prescribed for COPD are:

  • Beta-2 agonists relax tightened airways so you can breathe more easily. Short-acting (SABA) and long-acting (LABA) options are available.
  • Anticholinergics prevent your airways from tightening and help clear mucus. These also come in short-acting (SAMA) and long-acting (LAMA) options.
  • Inhaled corticosteroids decrease swelling and mucus production in the airways. These medications are not used alone for COPD treatment. Instead, they are combined with other medication types.
  • Combination inhalers combine two or more medications in one inhaler to enhance effectiveness and simplify your routine. A popular example is Trelegy Ellipta, which includes a steroid, LAMA, and LABA. [11]

Breathing Exercises

a woman practicing breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are a simple yet effective way to strengthen the muscles used for breathing, ultimately making it easier for you to breathe and manage shortness of breath.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing allows your body to breathe more fresh air while preventing air from getting trapped in your lungs. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you practice deep breathing effectively:

  1. Sit or stand with your elbows pushed slightly back
  2. Inhale deeply and hold your breath as long as you can
  3. Let all the air out of your lungs and cough strongly
  4. Repeat this cycle up to 10 times every hour [12]

Pursed Lip Breathing

This simple technique can help you slow down your breathing and stay calm. Pursed lip breathing before activities or when you feel short of breath is helpful.

  1. Breathe in slowly through your nose while engaging your abdominal muscles. Count to two in your head.
  2. Purse your lips like you're going to blow out a candle. Exhale slowly through pursed lips while counting to four in your head.
  3. Repeat until your breathing slows and you feel less short of breath. [12]

Diaphragmatic Breathing

With COPD, trapped air can push on the lungs, causing you to use the neck, shoulder, and back muscles rather than the diaphragm when breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing exercises can strengthen the diaphragm.

  1. Lie on a flat surface and bend your knees, finding a comfortable position.
  2. Place one hand below your ribs and the other hand in the middle of your chest.
  3. Inhale slowly through your nose, focusing on expanding your diaphragm.
  4. Gradually tighten the muscles below your ribs and exhale slowly through pursed lips.
  5. Aim to practice this exercise for 5 to 10 minutes, three to four times daily. As you progress, gradually increase the duration of each session. [12]

Controlled Coughing

Constant coughing can strain your airways and make it difficult to breathe. Controlled coughing, on the other hand, helps move mucus through your airways without causing them to collapse. This technique is beneficial when you feel mucus in your airways or have used a bronchodilator medication. Follow these steps for controlled coughing:

  1. Sit on a chair with both feet firmly on the floor and lean forward slightly.
  2. Cross your arms over your belly and inhale slowly through your nose.
  3. Lean forward, pressing your arms into your belly, and exhale forcefully.
  4. Slightly open your mouth and perform two to three short, sharp coughs.
  5. Slowly inhale through your nose, filling your lungs with fresh air. [12]


By understanding the causes, symptoms, and available treatment options, individuals at risk and those already living with COPD can take proactive steps to manage their condition effectively. Through lifestyle changes, medications, and targeted breathing exercises, there is hope for slowing down the progression of COPD and enhancing overall quality of life.

If you have any questions about COPD, visit our dedicated COPD blog for more information.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.