COPD -- A Primer


COPD -- A Primer

There have been a lot of commercials on television lately touting medications for COPD.  It’s interesting that COPD has been around for a long time, but most lay people were in the dark.  With the advancements in medications, the pharmaceutical companies have spent the time and money to inform consumers about these new medications.

“The medications available in the past weren’t very effective,” notes Dr. Timothy Sullivan, Clinical Professor at the Medical College of Georgia.  “Thankfully, these new medications are much more effective.   We all know the pharmaceutical company advertising campaigns are geared toward product awareness, but I like the idea that they are bringing attention to COPD.   This awareness may prompt those affected to visit their doctor and get treated.   There are serious complications that can come from COPD type diseases, including heart failure, emphysema and more. 

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma and some forms of bronchiectasis.

In the United States, there are currently 24 million people living with this disease, with half of them not knowing they are affected. COPD is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and every four minutes an individual dies of the disease. COPD kills more American women than breast cancer and diabetes combined.

Smoking is not the only cause of COPD; second-hand smoke, occupational dust and chemicals, air pollution and genetic factors also cause this disease.

How Do I Know if I Have COPD?

Since its inception in 2004, the COPD Foundation has been working with its partners to generate awareness and education for COPD. DRIVE4COPD is a landmark public health initiative created to raise awareness of COPD, drive earlier diagnosis through risk screening, champion access to needed care and services, and advance efforts to help people with COPD live full and productive lives.

To date, more than 2.5 million individuals have taken the COPD Foundation short, five question risk screener using. The screener online at to determine if you may be at risk for COPD.  If your score indicates  you may be at risk, we encourage you to call the COPD information line at 1-866-316-COPD (2673) to discuss next steps.  COPD is treatable, and the information line can assist individuals and provide information to improve the quality of life for individuals with COPD and their loved ones.

The COPD Information Line can be reached 9AM-9PM EST Monday through Friday at (866) 316-COPD (2673).

Who is at Risk for COPD?

Most individuals with COPD are 40 years and older, with a history of smoking.

However, many individuals with COPD have never smoked. Individuals at risk for developing COPD have a history of smoking, or have had long-term exposure to air pollutants (including pollution and second-hand smoke). Individuals with symptoms (including chronic coughing with or without sputum, wheezing, tightness in chest, and increased breathlessness) are encouraged to take the 5-question risk screener.

Some individuals could be genetically predisposed to COPD and have Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (Alpha-1).

Alpha-1 is a condition that is passed from parents to their children through their genes.  This condition may result in serious lung and/or liver disease at various ages in life.   For each trait a person inherits, there are usually two genes and one gene comes from each parent.

People with Alpha-1 have received two defective alpha-1 antitrypsin genes. One defective gene came from their mother and one from their father. There are many types of defective alpha-1 antitrypsin genes. The most common abnormal genes are called S and Z. Normal genes are called M.

A person who does not have Alpha-1 will have two M genes (MM). People identified with Alpha-1 most commonly have two Z genes (ZZ). Current evidence suggests that there are about 100,000 people with Alpha-1 (ZZ) in the United States. Another deficient gene combination is SZ, although people with this gene combination are less likely to get lung or liver problems than those with two Z genes.


How Can a Doctor Test for COPD?

A simple breathing test can detect if you have COPD even before you start showing symptoms. When you take a spirometry test, you will be asked to blow all the air out of your lungs into a hose connected to a machine known as a spirometer. A spirometer is very sensitive so it can easily measure and detect COPD even before symptoms start showing.

Individuals who are developing COPD may not show symptoms until the disease is well-developed. It is important to ask your doctor about taking a spirometry test if you are a current or former smoker, or have been exposed to harmful lung irritants for a long period of time.

Is COPD Treatable?

There is no known cure yet, but COPD is preventable and treatable.  Unfortunately, leaving symptoms untreated or misdiagnosed may cause them to quickly worsen rather than if they were treated with proper medication and therapy. With a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, symptoms can be controlled and the progress of the disease can be delayed.  Individuals with COPD can live quality lives, but early detection is essential. 

For more information, please visit: or call 1-866-316-2673.