Also Known As: COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD), chronic obstructive airway disease (COAD), chronic airflow limitation (CAL) and chronic obstructive respiratory disease (CORD), is the co-occurrence of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, a pair of commonly co-existing diseases of the lungs in which the airways become narrowed. This leads to a limitation of the flow of air to and from the lungs, causing shortness of breath (dyspnea). In clinical practice, COPD is defined by its characteristically low airflow on lung function tests. In contrast to asthma, this limitation is poorly reversible and usually gets progressively worse over time. In England, an estimated 842,100 of 50 million people have a diagnosis of COPD.

COPD is caused by noxious particles or gas, most commonly from tobacco smoking, which triggers an abnormal inflammatory response in the lung.

The diagnosis of COPD requires lung function tests. Important management strategies are smoking cessation, vaccinations, rehabilitation, and drug therapy (often using inhalers). Some patients go on to require long-term oxygen therapy or lung transplantation.

Worldwide, COPD ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in 1990. It is projected to be the fourth leading cause of death worldwide by 2030 due to an increase in smoking rates and demographic changes in many countries. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and the economic burden of COPD in the U.S. in 2007 was $42.6 billion in health care costs and lost productivity.


The primary risk factor for COPD is chronic tobacco smoking. In the United States, 80 to 90% of cases of COPD are due to smoking.[21][22] Exposure to cigarette smoke is measured in pack-years,[23] the average number of packages of cigarettes smoked daily multiplied by the number of years of smoking. The likelihood of developing COPD increases with age and cumulative smoke exposure, and almost all life-long smokers will develop COPD, provided that smoking-related, extrapulmonary diseases (cardiovascular, diabetes, cancer) do not claim their lives beforehand.[24]

Occupational exposures

Intense and prolonged exposure to workplace dusts found in coal mining, gold mining, and the cotton textile industry and chemicals such as cadmium, isocyanates, and fumes from welding have been implicated in the development of airflow obstruction, even in nonsmokers.[25] Workers who smoke and are exposed to these particles and gases are even more likely to develop COPD. Intense silica dust exposure causes silicosis, a restrictive lung disease distinct from COPD; however, less intense silica dust exposures have been linked to a COPD-like condition.[26] The effect of occupational pollutants on the lungs appears to be substantially less important than the effect of cigarette smoking.[27]

Air pollution

Studies in many countries have found people who live in large cities have a higher rate of COPD compared to people who live in rural areas.[28] Urban air pollution may be a contributing factor for COPD, as it is thought to slow the normal growth of the lungs, although the long-term research needed to confirm the link has not been done. Studies of the industrial waste gas and COPD/asthma-aggravating compound, sulfur dioxide, and the inverse relation to the presence of the blue lichen Xanthoria (usually found abundantly in the countryside, but never in towns or cities) have been seen to suggest combustive industrial processes do not aid COPD sufferers. In many developing countries, indoor air pollution from cooking fire smoke (often using biomass fuels such as wood and animal dung) is a common cause of COPD, especially in women.[29]


Some factor in addition to heavy smoke exposure is required for a person to develop COPD. This factor is probably a genetic susceptibility. COPD is more common among relatives of COPD patients who smoke than unrelated smokers.[30] The genetic differences that make some peoples' lungs susceptible to the effects of tobacco smoke are mostly unknown. Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic condition that is responsible for about 2% of cases of COPD. In this condition, the body does not make enough of a protein, alpha 1-antitrypsin. Alpha 1-antitrypsin protects the lungs from damage caused by protease enzymes, such as elastase and trypsin, that can be released as a result of an inflammatory response to tobacco smoke.[31]

Autoimmune disease

There is mounting evidence that there may be an autoimmune component to COPD, triggered by lifelong smoking.[32] Many individuals with COPD who have stopped smoking have active inflammation in the lungs.[33] The disease may continue to get worse for many years after stopping smoking due to this ongoing inflammation.[33] This sustained inflammation is thought to be mediated by autoantibodies and autoreactive T cells.[33][34][35]

Lung damage and inflammation in the large airways results in chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is defined in clinical terms as a cough with sputum production on most days for 3 months of a year, for 2 consecutive years.[12] In the airways of the lung, the hallmark of chronic bronchitis is an increased number (hyperplasia) and increased size (hypertrophy) of the goblet cells and mucous glands of the airway. As a result, there is more mucus than usual in the airways, contributing to narrowing of the airways and causing a cough with sputum. Microscopically there is infiltration of the airway walls with inflammatory cells. Inflammation is followed by scarring and remodeling that thickens the walls and also results in narrowing of the airways. As chronic bronchitis progresses, there is squamous metaplasia (an abnormal change in the tissue lining the inside of the airway) and fibrosis (further thickening and scarring of the airway wall). The consequence of these changes is a limitation of airflow.[13]

Lung damage and inflammation of the air sacs (alveoli) will result in emphysema. Emphysema is defined as enlargement of the air spaces distal to the terminal bronchioles, with destruction of their walls.[12] The destruction of air space walls reduces the surface area available for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide during breathing. It also reduces the elasticity of the lung itself, which results in a loss of support for the airways that are embedded in the lung. These airways are more likely to collapse causing further limitation to airflow.

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