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COPD Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term referring to the combination of two lung diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Obstruction in airflow means that you have trouble getting your air out. Having airway obstruction over time stretches out your lungs, causing them to lose the elasticity they need to move the air and help you breathe.

The amount of obstruction and disease can be quite significant before you begin to feel short of breath. That is why early testing and diagnosis is so important! Here are some basic facts about COPD, a link to an important survey on COPD, and a list of COPD risk factors.



COPD Facts

  • COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in America, claiming the lives of over 122,000 Americans in 2003.
  • Beginning in 2000, women exceeded men in the number of deaths attributable to COPD.  In 2002, over 61,000 females died compared to 59,000 males.
  • Smoking is the primary risk factor for COPD. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of COPD deaths are caused by smoking. Female smokers are nearly 13 times as likely to die from COPD as women who have never smoked.  Male smokers are nearly 12 times as likely to die from COPD as men who have never smoked.
  • Other risk factors of COPD include air pollution, second-hand smoke, history of childhood respiratory infections and heredity.  Occupational exposure to certain industrial pollutants also increases the odds for COPD. 
  • In 2004, 11.4 million U.S. adults were estimated to have COPD. However, close to 24 million U.S. adults have evidence of impaired lung function, indicating an under diagnosis of COPD.
  • Emphysema develops gradually. Years of exposure to irritation from cigarette smoking usually precede the development of emphysema. Of those who have this disease, 54.8 % are male and 45.2 % are female. However, within the past year, the prevalence rate for women has increased 20%, whereas that for men has decreased 19%.
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency-related (ATT) emphysema is caused by the inherited deficiency of ATT, the “lung protector.” It is responsible for 5% or less of the emphysema in the U.S. However, an estimated 100,000 Americans have ATT deficiency and another 25 million carry the gene that can be passed onto their children. A recent study suggested that there are at least 116 million carriers, worldwide.

(source: the American Lung Association)

Landmark Survey — Confronting COPD in America


The most comprehensive U.S. survey ever done on COPD, reveals that millions of Americans are suffering from shortness of breath so severe it interferes with even the most basic daily activities. Of the nearly 600 people with COPD interviewed:

  • Nearly half get short of breath while washing and dressing (44 %) and or doing light housework (46%).
  • One in three (32%) get short of breath while talking, and 28% have difficulty breathing even when sitting or lying still.
  • Almost one in four (23%) say their condition has made them an invalid; 8% are too breathless to leave home.


“The survey confirms and quantifies what people living with COPD or caring for someone with COPD know from first-hand experience: It can be a debilitating disease that robs people of their breath and their independence,” said Dr. Norman Edelman, spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “We see a growing demand for information about COPD, and a growing awareness that it is actually more common—and has a more profound impact—than other respiratory diseases.”
Even though COPD is so prevalent and debilitating, there is still not nearly enough being done to help people breathe better. “Confronting COPD in America” clearly shows that patients and families, as well as health care professionals, need to have a better understanding of diagnosing and managing COPD.
See the results of this landmark survey, “Confronting COPD in America.”

Could You be at Risk for Having COPD?

  • Are you 45 or older, currently smoke cigarettes or have smoked in the past?
  • Are you 45 or older and have a history of breathing irritants in your environment?
  • Do you sometimes have coughing fits or trouble breathing when exerting?
  • Do you have frequent bouts of bronchitis?
  • Do you cough up mucus or phlegm in the morning?
  • Does asthma, bronchitis or emphysema run in your family?


If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you may be at risk for developing COPD. You should talk to your doctor and ask him or her to consider ordering spirometry (a quick and simple lung function test). Bring this information to your doctor’s attention, if necessary. For more information, visit

Information compiled by Jane M. Martin, 2006


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