COPD: All About Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Medicare Benefits Solutions
Feb 16, 2022

COPD, which stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a group of disorders characterized by breathing problems and airflow blockage. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the main types of this common lung disease.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 16 million people in the U.S. have COPD and that only reflects those who have been diagnosed and treated. According to the CDC, “more than 50% of adults with low pulmonary function were not aware that they had COPD.”

COPD Symptoms and Testing

If you experience any of the following symptoms, see your doctor for an evaluation:

  • Frequent cough or wheezing
  • Excess respiratory tract secretions like mucus, phlegm, or spit
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty when you inhale deeply

Your doctor may perform a spirometry test to check if you have COPD, which uses a machine to measure your body’s ability to inhale and exhale. The test can be conducted in the doctor’s office or a pulmonary testing lab. A spirometry machine is used to diagnose asthma as well.

If you have chest pain and trouble breathing, you may also want to get a tuberculosis test to determine if you have a tuberculosis infection involving the lungs. Breathing issues while sleeping can also be a sign of sleep apnea. Based on your specific symptoms and circumstances, your doctor can order tests to help make a diagnosis and get you started on an appropriate treatment plan.

How COPD is Different Than Asthma

Both COPD and asthma are diseases of the lung that lead to swelling in the airways and difficulty breathing. Here is a brief outline of how they differ:


  • Typically triggered by allergies, such as mold or pollen
  • Presents intermittent symptoms
  • Often starts during childhood


  • Involves damage to the sacs in your lungs (emphysema) or inflammation in the bronchial tubes (chronic bronchitis)
  • Presents symptoms that worsen over time even when you undergo treatment
  • Frequently occurs after years of exposure to smoke, pollution and workplace chemicals

Causes of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Some causes of COPD may be out of your control, such as secondhand tobacco smoke, heredity, external air pollution and workplace air pollutants. People who have a history of respiratory infections are also more vulnerable. 

It is common to see symptoms in older adults due to the link between COPD and people who are:

  • 65 years of age or older
  • retired or cannot work
  • have or had a smoking habit

Gender plays a role as well. Research summarized in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease revealed that “there has been a rapid increase in the prevalence, morbidity and mortality of COPD in women over the last two decades.” Possible reasons are that the female population:

  • Continues an upward trend of tobacco usage and may be more susceptible to its effects
  • May respond differently than males to treatments
  • Are more likely than males to have osteoporosis and depression concurrent with COPD
  • Are exposed to more pollutants than in the past, working in industries that used to be male-dominated
  • Tend to be more prone than males to upper respiratory infection

To lower your risk by controlling what you can, refrain from smoking. The CDC points to tobacco smoke as the leading cause of COPD.

COPD Treatment

Although COPD is not curable, it is treatable. Depending on the severity of the disease and your symptoms, your doctor may recommend the following treatments:

  • Oral and inhaled medications to alleviate symptoms
  • Supplemental oxygen using a portable oxygen tank to help you stay active and breathe comfortably
  • Surgery for localized damage, followed by a pulmonary rehabilitation program
  • Lung transplant if damage to the lungs cannot be repaired

One of the medications your doctor may prescribe is a COPD inhaler. A bronchodilator is an inhaled medication designed to improve the airflow around your airways. The fast-active version is known as a rescue inhaler, which should be used when symptoms occur. The long-acting bronchodilator is for daily use.

There is a concern regarding treatment for COPD in the elderly. Health In Aging notes that “only 60% of older adults use inhalers correctly.” This may be explained by health conditions prevalent in older adults. For example, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease can impact strength and coordination.  

Living With COPD

Here are key takeaways for maintaining quality of life as you manage your COPD symptoms:

  • If you smoke, reach out for support in quitting, and research products that may help you, such as gum or patches.
  • Learn breathing exercises to maintain open airways, boost oxygen and relax.
  • Wear a mask to reduce exposure to irritants like secondhand smoke, perfume, air fresheners, car exhaust and cleaning products. 
  • Start or continue exercising for the many health benefits derived, such as flexibility in joints, boosting oxygen, muscle building and easier breathing.
  • Discuss with your doctor what is considered an ideal weight for you, and consume a healthy diet to maintain your healthy weight.
  • Schedule pneumonia and flu shots.

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