How will I cope? How will my life change? What about my family? My job? If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with COPD, you undoubtedly have a lot of unanswered questions. Although living with COPD may be challenging, learning how to manage your life after your diagnosis will empower you to take charge of the disease, before it takes charge of you.

OxygenMD’s Essential Guide to COPD is divided into five sections for easier reading. Whether you start at the beginning and read all the way through, or take it section by section, this guide will provide you with the answers you need to the most frequently asked questions about COPD.

Part I: What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a preventable and treatable lung disease that makes breathing more difficult. Although it primarily targets the lungs, the disease can affect other parts of the body, as well.

What Causes COPD?

COPD occurs when repeated exposure to irritants in the air causes the breathing passages to become inflamed, swollen, and narrow. This leads to limitation of airflow into and out of the lungs, and symptoms that worsen over time.
It’s important to understand that, while smoking is the primary cause of COPD, it’s not the only cause; second hand smoke, air pollution, workplace exposure to dust, chemicals, and fumes, and family history also play a role in its development.

Symptoms of COPD

The hallmark symptom of COPD is shortness of breath that worsens with activity. Other symptoms may include:

  • Cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Fatigue

Diagnosis of COPD

A breathing test known as spirometry is required to make a conclusive diagnosis of COPD. Your doctor will also perform a complete history and physical and may order additional diagnostic tests including a chest X-ray, CAT scan (CT) of the chest, pulse oximetry, blood, and sputum (mucus) tests.

Stages of COPD

According to the Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease, there are 4 stages, or grades, of COPD that define the disease according to how severe it is. Staging is done through spirometry – the same test that’s used to diagnose the disease – and is broken down as follows:

  • Stage I: Mild COPD
    Because airflow limitation at this stage is mild, you may, or may not, exhibit symptoms such as a persistent cough or increased mucus production. People with mild COPD often associate early symptoms with smoking or aging and rarely seek treatment at this stage.
  • Stage II: Moderate COPD
    As airflow limitation worsens, symptoms of moderate COPD may become more apparent, particularly shortness of breath that worsens with activity, cough, and increased mucus production. It’s during this stage that most people make an appointment with a doctor to find out the cause of their symptoms.
  • Stage III: Severe COPD
    During this stage, airflow limitation significantly worsens and shortness of breath is likely to be more noticeable. Your ability to perform simple daily activities and exercise may decrease and you may experience worsening fatigue. Exacerbations (flare-ups of worsening symptoms) are also more common.
  • Stage IV: Very Severe COPD
    Airflow limitation at this stage is severely impaired, resulting in a significant decrease in quality of life and shortness of breath even while sitting or lying down. Flare-ups are usually more common, as are complications of the disease such as heart problems or respiratory failure.

Read the next chapter in the guide: Part II: COPD Treatment. Or visit another chapter:

Part III: Living with COPD

Part IV: Preventing COPD Flare-Ups

Part V: COPD Oxygen Therapy Options