Skip to main content
Skip to page content
Skip Navigation LinksPennsylvania Department of Health > My Health > Environmental Health > Health Tracking Program > COPD


What is COPD?
COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is a disease that gets worse over time.  It causes coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and other symptoms. It includes two lung problems; chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2014.  Almost 15.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD. 
Bronchitis is characterized by increased cough and mucus production, which is caused by inflammation of the airways. Bronchitis is considered chronic, or long-term, if a person coughs and produces excess mucus most days during three months in a year, for two years in a row.
Emphysema is associated with damage of the air sacs and/or collapse of the smallest breathing tubes in the lungs.
In COPD-diagnosed individuals, less air flows in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following events:
  • The airways and air sacs lose their elastic quality.
  • The walls between many of the air sacs have been destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways have become thick and inflamed.
  • The airways make more mucus than usual, which can clog them.

Causes of COPD

In the United States, smoking is the key factor in the development and progression of COPD.  Other contributing factors for COPD are air pollutants in the home and workplace, secondhand smoke, genetic factors and respiratory infections.
Signs and Symptoms of COPD
Those diagnosed with COPD may have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, an inability to work and may require special equipment such as a portable oxygen tank.  They may also experience confusion or memory loss, depression, or other mental or emotional difficulties.
Common signs and symptoms of COPD are:
  • shortness of breath or a persistent cough
  • coughing up mucus
  • difficult or labored breathing 
  • wheezing 
  • frequent colds 
  • fatigue
  • weight loss
  • morning headaches

Categories of People with high risk factors
These groups of people were more likely to report having COPD:
  • people aged 65-74 years and older than 75
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives and multiracial non-Hispanics 
  • women
  • individuals who were unemployed, retired or unable to work
  • individuals with less than a high school education
  • individuals who were divorced, widowed or separated
  • current or former smokers
  • people with a history of asthma

Treating COPD
Treatment of COPD requires a careful evaluation by a physician.  Treatment can alleviate symptoms, decrease the frequency and severity of aggravation and increase exercise tolerance.  Wheezing and coughing can be treated with medications.  Pulmonary rehabilitation is another option for patients with COPD, teaching individualized management strategies to improve quality of life. Other treatment plans include breathing strategies, energy-conserving techniques, exercise training and nutritional counseling. Although there is no cure, treatments and lifestyle changes can make living with COPD more manageable.
Preventing COPD
Early detection of COPD may change its course and progress.  Smoking is a key factor in contracting COPD.  Smokers should quit smoking and also avoid secondhand smoke.  Avoid home and workplace air pollutants as much as possible.
Related Links