COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s characterized by respiratory symptoms (cough and shortness of breath) and airflow obstruction. There is no cure. These symptoms are the result of damage to the lungs over many years.

  • Chronic – It doesn’t go away (long-term)

  • Obstructive – Partly blocked

  • Pulmonary – In the lungs

  • Disease – Illness

The two major forms of COPD include chronic bronchitis and emphysema, though they frequently coexist.

Chronic Bronchitis is most commonly brought on by constant irritants such as cigarette smoke. The irritated airway becomes inflamed or infected and produces excess mucus. The walls off your airways are swollen, partially blocking the airflow.

A persistent cough is common. The condition develops over time, causing shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing.

Emphysema affects the alveoli, or air sacs, of the lungs. These air sacs transfer oxygen into the blood and carry carbon dioxide out. With emphysema, the sacs become damaged, making many air sacs unable to transfer gases.

Emphysema is commonly accompanied by severe shortness of breath during exertion. Coughing and mucus are not as common with emphysema.

The Canadian Lung Health Test:

Most people with COPD aren’t diagnosed until the disease is well advanced. Answer the following questions to determine if you should be tested for COPD:

  1. Are you a smoker or ex-smoker, 40 years of age and older?

  2. Do you cough regularly?

  3. Do you cough up phlegm regularly?

  4. Do even simple chores make you short of breath?

  5. Do you wheeze when you exert yourself (exercise or go upstairs)?

  6. Do you get many colds and do your colds usually last longer than your friends’ colds? 

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, see your healthcare professional to be assessed for COPD. Your healthcare provider may send you for a lung function test called “spirometry”.

Spirometry is the most reliable way to diagnose COPD. It’s a simple breathing test that measures the speed and amount of air you’re able to blow out of your lungs. Your healthcare provider may also refer you for other pulmonary function tests.

Things you can do to improve your symptoms:

If you smoke, QUIT! This is the first step to feeling better.

Exercise is important. Slowly increase the time you spend exercising. Talk with your healthcare provider before beginning an exercise program.

If you have trouble breathing, exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing. However, COPD exercises can help your breathing, allowing you to stay active and improve your quality of life.

Maintain proper posture. This ensures the muscles which support your spine are relaxed and do not use excess oxygen. This also allows for optimum lung expansion when you breathe.

Eat a proper diet and maintain a healthy body weight. This impacts your overall health and your recovery from illness.

Clear your lungs with controlled coughing. Coughing from deep in your lungs loosens mucus and moves it through your airways.

Keep yourself healthy. Get enough sleep and practice good infection prevention by washing your hands regularly; avoiding contact with others who are ill; and speaking to your healthcare provider about receiving an influenza and pneumonia vaccination.

Breathing Exercises. Practice S.O.S for shortness of breath and diaphragmatic breathing exercises to help manage difficult breathing.

Breathlessness, coughing, mucus, and fatigue are symptoms of COPD which can be alleviated with medication. There are five basic COPD medications which address different symptoms at different stages of the disease:

  1. Inhalers for relief and maintenance.

  2. Inhaled steroids for prevention of flare-ups.

  3. Antibiotics for fighting infection.

  4. Vaccines for flu and pneumonia prevention

  5. Supplemental oxygen to improve quality of life and prolong life (when blood oxygen levels are low).

Although there is no cure for COPD, the earlier the diagnosis the sooner a person can begin to manage his/her health and improve their quality of life.

COPD is the fourth most common cause of hospitalization among men and the sixth most common cause among women [1]. Approximately 500,000 people over the age of 35 have been diagnosed with COPD, and it’s estimated an almost equal number of middle-aged Canadians may be unaware they have COPD [2]. In fact, it’s estimated COPD will be the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2020.

COPD not only impacts patients and their families, but also the Canadian healthcare system. The annual direct cost of COPD (diagnosis, hospitalization, emergency room visits, etc.) is almost $2,000 per patient. Additionally, the indirect cost associated with work loss and absenteeism was approximately $1,000 per patient. As a result, the total costs for COPD in Canada is estimated at approximately $1.5 billion a year.


  1. Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Control. Editorial Board for Respiratory Disease in Canada, Health Canada, Ottawa, Canada, 2001.2.

  2. Ernst PP, Bourbeau J, Rainville B, Benayoun S, Suissa S. Underestimation of COPD as a cause of death. Eur Respir J 2000; 16 (Suppl. 31) :13s.

The Lung Association is a registered charity which provides information and funding for research to improve lung health. They focus on the prevention and control of asthma and chronic lung disease; smoking cessation and prevention; and, air quality and its effects on lung health.

BreathWorks is a Lung Association program designed to help patients and their families and caregivers cope with the emotional hurdles and physical challenges of living with COPD.

For further information call The Lung Association at 1-888-344-5864 (LUNG) or visit