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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term that refers to two lung diseases, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These conditions often occur together. Both limit airflow to and from the lungs making it hard to breathe. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation, or irritation, of the airways in the lungs. This causes thick mucus to form making it hard for air to pass through. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include a cough with mucus, difficulty breathing, and tightness in the chest. Cigarette smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis. The treatment includes medications called bronchodilators, which help open your airways. They are usually taken by using an inhaler. Your doctor may also prescribe steroids and/or theophylline, which helps reduce inflammation. Chronic bronchitis affects people of all ages, but more commonly affects those over 45 years old. Women are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis as males.


In emphysema, the tissue around smaller airways, called bronchioles and alveoli are damaged or destroyed. When you breathe in, air enters first through the trachea (windpipe), then goes into the bronchi (air tubes going to the right and left lungs). Next, the air moves into the smaller branches of the airway, with the smallest tubes being the bronchioles. At the ends of the bronchioles are the alveoli. Alveoli are very small air sacs that look like a bunch of grapes. Oxygen from the air goes into the blood through these air sacs. As you can see, the alveoli and the bronchioles are very important structures in the lungs. It is these structures that are destroyed by emphysema. With the bronchioles & the alveoli destroyed, less oxygen passes into the blood. This causes the most common symptom of emphysema, shortness of breath. Other symptoms include cough and a limited tolerence for physical activity. Emphysema develops gradually, usually over years. Cigarette smoking is the number one cause. Other causes include deficiency of an enzyme called alpha-1-antitrypsin, air pollution, airway reactivity, heredity, male sex, and age. Treatment for Emphysema includes Bronchodilating medication such as albuterol (Proventil or Ventolin). These medications help to open the airways making breathing easier. Steroid medications may be used to help reduce inflammation. As emphysema progresses and becomes worse, oxygen may be necessary. It is often given through the use of home-based oxygen tanks and protable oxygen units. Lung reduction surgery amy be an option for people with advanced emphysema. For the most advanced cases of emphysema, transplantation of either one or both lungs can produce a near-cure. Emphysema is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. It occurs slightly more in men (55% of cases) than women (45% of cases).

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