What is COPD and can it be prevented?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – COPD – makes breathing hard. It slowly damages the airways of the lungs, making them swollen and blocked and causing them to lose their elasticity or stretchiness. COPD makes it hard to breathe because:

  • the airways and air sacs of the lungs lose their shape and stretchiness
  • the walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed
  • the walls of the airways become thick and swollen
  • cells in the airways make more mucus than usual, which blocks the airways.

COPD is a term that includes a number of lung diseases. The most common are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Many people with COPD have both of these lung diseases.

COPD is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time. Symptoms like shortness of breath, increased mucus and coughing often slowly get worse. Some people with COPD say it feels like they're breathing through a straw.

More than 700,000 Canadians have been diagnosed with COPD. Thousands more have it but haven't been diagnosed yet. There is no cure for COPD, but it can be managed.

What causes COPD?

Smoking cigarettes causes about 90 percent of COPD cases . Other risk factors include:

  • heredity (for example, Alpha1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, which is a rare genetic disorder that can cause COPD)
  • second-hand smoke
  • exposure to air pollution at work and in the environment, such as dust or chemicals
  • a history of childhood lung infections.

COPD is preventable and treatable

The good news about COPD is that it is almost completely preventable. If you're a smoker, the single best thing you can do to reduce your chance of getting COPD is to stop smoking. It's never too late to quit. Quitting smoking not only reduces your risk of developing COPD in the first place, but it also helps to slow down the disease once you have it.

Also, the earlier a doctor detects COPD, the easier it is to treat. It's very important for smokers and former smokers to ask their doctors for a simple breathing test, called spirometry. This quick, painless test measures how much and how fast you can move air in and out of your lungs. It's the best way for doctors to detect COPD.

Additional resources

Page details

Date modified: