Live Well With COPD

An Everyday Guide for You and Your Family

American College of Physicians
lady blowing out candles

About COPD

The Basics

COPD stands for "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease." COPD is a lung disease. People with COPD have a hard time getting air in and out of their lungs.

COPD is sometimes called chronic bronchitis (bron-ki'-tis) or emphysema (em-fih-see'-muh). People can get COPD from smoking. However, some people get it from being around other people who smoke or from breathing dirty air. COPD can make people:

  • Feel like they can't catch their breath.
  • Cough a lot.
  • Cough up more mucus or phlegm.
  • Feel like their chest is tight.

Symptoms of COPD

If you have COPD, you may have some of these symptoms:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lack of energy or feeling tired
  • Chest tightness
  • Chest infections

Your symptoms will depend on how severe your COPD is. Some people have mild disease and only a few symptoms. Others have very severe disease and very bad symptoms.


Testing Your Lungs

When you are first diagnosed with COPD, you may need certain tests. These tests help your healthcare team see how your lungs are working and also how severe your COPD is. The tests might include:

  • Spirometry (spih-rom'-uh-tree). This is the most common breathing test. You take in as deep a breath as you can, and then you blow it all out into a device as hard and as fast as you can. The test provides two numbers:
    • Your FVC number. This measures how much air you can breathe out.
    • Your FEV1 number. This is another measure of how much air you can breathe out. This number helps your healthcare team see how severe your COPD is and helps you get the kind of care you need.
  • Body plethysmography (pleh-this-mah'-gruh-fee). This test measures how large your lungs are. This test is given with you sitting inside a closed booth (like a telephone booth), following instructions given to you by a technician.
spirometry machine
This is a spirometry machine.

Severity of COPD

COPD has four levels of severity. They range from mild to very severe. Severity is based on:

  • Your symptoms
  • Your spirometry results
  • Other health problems you may have

Your healthcare professional will tell you how severe your COPD is based on the following information:

Stage Symptoms Spirometry Results
Mild
  • A little hard to breathe
  • Some more mucus
  • Cough
FEV1 is 80% or more of normal
Moderate
  • More coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Harder to breathe
FEV1 is between 50% and 80% of normal
Severe
  • Very hard to breathe
  • Hard to do the things you like to do
  • Lots of wheezing and coughing
FEV1 is between 30% and 50% of normal
Very severe (also called end stage)
  • Very hard to breathe, even at rest
  • Frequent complications, such as lung infections
FEV1 is less than 30% of normal
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