What Every Smoker Should Know About COPD
More than half of those with COPD don't even know they have it. Most are smokers.

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Picture of older man smoking What Every Smoker Should Know About COPD

Many people know that smoking can cause lung cancer and that it is a big risk factor for heart disease. Fewer people know smoking also causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

An estimated 24 million Americans have COPD, but only about half have been diagnosed. The other half don't even know they have it because the symptoms are often ignored. Most of these people are smokers. Smokers with chronic bronchitis often dismiss their chronic cough as a "smoker's cough" and ignore it. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. It is also one of the most preventable diseases. Most cases of COPD can be prevented by not smoking.

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
COPD refers to the diseases emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These lung diseases block airflow.

In emphysema the air sacs in the lungs become damaged. Air gets trapped in the lungs. Breathing becomes more difficult. Shortness of breath is the main symptom. Emphysema increases the chances for developing life-threatening lung infections.

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation and scarring of the lining of the bronchial or breathing tubes. Mucus and bacterial infections collect within the airways, impeding airflow. It can also lead to emphysema. Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs) and heart failure can result.

COPD and smoking
Awareness about COPD among smokers is slowly increasing. But there are still many smokers who ignore their COPD symptoms or don't fully recognize the COPD-smoking connection. Take note:

  • As smokers continue to smoke, COPD-related lung damage gets worse.
  • Smokers with chronic bronchitis often dismiss their chronic cough as a "smoker's cough" and ignore it. The cough is a symptom of COPD.
  • Eight out of 10 cases of COPD are due to smoking, usually in those over 40 years of age. The remaining cases are due to other factors including genetic conditions, such as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or other environmental exposures.
  • Smokers are only half as likely to talk to their doctors about COPD symptoms compared to nonsmokers with similar symptoms.
  • A smoker is 10 times more likely to die of COPD than someone who doesn't smoke.

Symptoms of COPD
It's more than just a "smoker's cough." Here are some of the signs that you might have COPD:

  • Shortness of breath during physical activities
  • Shortness of breath when resting
  • Chronic cough, especially in the morning
  • Cough that produces sputum

What you can do
COPD can be diagnosed early. The earlier it is found, the more can be done to treat and help manage the disease.

  • Stop smoking. It's never too late to stop. If you quit now, you may be able to prevent the disease altogether or at least slow the progression.
  • See your doctor. The first step is an office visit that may include:
    • A simple test called spirometry. The test involves breathing hard and fast into a tube. The test measures the amount of air exhaled after one minute.
    • Smoking cessation advice. The doctor may prescribe nicotine replacement therapy or other medication to help make a quit attempt successful.
    • Immunizations against pneumonia and the flu. These illnesses can cause serious complications in people with COPD.
By Louis Neipris, MD, Staff Writer
Created on 11/18/2004
Updated on 02/10/2010
  • National Institutes of Health. NIH News: COPD.
  • American Lung Association. Understanding COPD.
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. 4 reasons to learn more about COPD.
  • American Lung Association. Hungry for air: sharing the facts about COPD.
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Am I at risk for COPD?
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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