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April 15, 2024

Does walking up the stairs leave you wheezing and winded? Are you plagued with a persistent cough and chest tightness? You’re not alone — and don’t just chalk it up as part of the aging process. You could be one of the millions of Americans suffering from undiagnosed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD.

COPD definition

Most Americans have probably heard of COPD, but many do not know what it means or that it may be something that’s actively affecting their quality of life — and quality of breath.

What is COPD? 

COPD refers to a group of diseases that obstruct the lungs’ airflow, causing blockages that lead to chronic breathing problems. 

  • In healthy lungs, the air you breathe travels through the bronchial tubes and then branches out into smaller, thinner tubes called bronchioles, which ultimately flow into tiny, elastic air sacs called alveoli. With COPD, less air is able to flow uninhibited throughout this respiratory system due to one or more of the following situations:
  • The elasticity of the air sacs and/or airways has been damaged
  • The air sac walls have been destroyed
  • The airway walls have grown too thick or are inflamed
  • Excess mucus has clogged the airways 

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two of the most common conditions that contribute to COPD, with many people suffering from both simultaneously.

  • Chronic bronchitis is long-term inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from the lungs. Common symptoms include persistent cough and excessive mucus production.
  • Emphysema is a condition in which lung tissue is damaged and ultimately destroyed due to continual exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke. The most common symptom is shortness of breath.

COPD is progressive, meaning that it worsens over time. Health care providers recognize four stages, or grades, of COPD:

  • Grade 1: mild
  • Grade 2: moderate
  • Grade 3: severe
  • Grade 4: very severe

Some good news? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is manageable and treatable once diagnosed, so it’s important to be on the lookout for COPD warning signs and symptoms and to be aware of any risk factors that may apply to you.

COPD symptoms and risk factors

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are currently nearly 16 million Americans that have been diagnosed with COPD, but there are potentially millions more that are living with the condition without realizing it. They may mistakenly assume that their symptoms are simply due to getting older, gaining weight, not getting enough exercise, or another circumstance, but the underlying cause is actually COPD. 


  • Shortness of breath
  • Productive cough (brings up mucus)
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Recurring respiratory infections, like bronchitis or pneumonia
  • Lack of energy or excessive tiredness
  • Unintentional weight loss (in later stages)
  • Swelling of the feet, ankles, or legs

Risk factors

Although anyone can get COPD, certain situations may increase your chances of developing the disease, the leading cause being cigarette use:

  • Current or former smoker
  • Over age 40
  • Air pollution
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Occupational exposure to dusts and chemicals
  • Family history of COPD
  • Certain infections, like HIV or tuberculosis
  • Asthma
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency (This protein made in the liver protects your lungs. If your body does not make enough, your lungs are more susceptible to diseases like COPD.)

COPD in women

COPD affects both men and women, but getting an accurate diagnosis in a timely manner may be predicated by one’s sex. Since COPD was previously considered a “man’s disease,” women are commonly misdiagnosed or receive a delayed diagnosis when the disease has already progressed to its later stages. This has led to more women than men currently living with the condition and women having higher instances of death due to COPD. 

COPD testing and treatment


If you suspect that you may be suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it’s always a good idea to visit your primary care provider (PCP). They will be able to listen to your lungs as you breathe using a stethoscope and may order additional tests such as:

  • Spirometry – With this simple, non-invasive test, you’ll be asked to take a deep breath and then blow into a tube to assess your lung function.
  • Chest X-ray, CT scan, or other imaging tests – These tests give your doctor a better look at how well your respiratory and circulatory systems are functioning.
  • An arterial blood gas test – This blood sample-based test measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood.


Once it’s been determined that COPD is the cause of your symptoms, don’t despair! COPD is not considered a terminal diagnosis, but rather a chronic condition to manage. Many people with COPD live well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s if they’re able to adequately manage their symptoms. 

However, the sooner you begin treatment, the better. Treatments can range from making lifestyle changes, taking medication, using supplemental oxygen, or even undergoing surgery if you are in the later stages of the disease. 

Most frequently, your doctor will advise you to quit smoking (if you haven’t already) and to incorporate healthy habits and nutrition into your daily life. This will not only help alleviate some COPD symptoms but will also slow the progression of the disease and improve your overall quality of life. 

Additionally, medications such as inhaled bronchodilators may be prescribed to help loosen tight muscles affecting your airways. Corticosteroids may also be administered in conjunction with bronchodilators to decrease mucus production and inflammation of the airways. If you’re blood oxygen is too low, you may also be given a portable oxygen tank. 

You might want to consider asking your doctor about pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a personalized program created with your PCP which includes strategies for better managing COPD symptoms, from tips to conserve your energy to making the best food choices for your health.

A higher standard of care for COPD

At GuideWell Emergency Doctors, we’re prepared to help if you are experiencing potential chronic obstructive pulmonary disease symptoms or are currently working to manage the disease. We’ve ramped up our respiratory protocol, and our Board-Certified Emergency Medicine Doctors are ready to provide you with the COPD care you deserve.

Our COPD protocol: 

  • Comprehensive labs including CBC, BMP, ABG/VBG, Troponin and BNP as needed 
  • Chest X-ray and chest CT when appropriate 
  • Bronchodilators, steroids, and oxygen therapy (magnesium sulfate and continuous nebulization also available) 
  • Streamlined discharge with portable oxygen as needed

Once stable, we support recovery at home with oxygen services available. Our dedicated care team then coordinates follow-up care with your referring physician, PCP, or back to our clinic.

The bottom line: With COPD, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you have shortness of breath, a cough that simply won’t quit, or any other medical emergency, come see us at GuideWell Emergency Doctors. We’ll treat you in 1/2 the time1 and for 1/3 the cost2 of a hospital ER. And then you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing you’re getting quality emergency and urgent care, for less. data measuring timely and effective emergency department care by state compared to GuideWell Emergency Doctors’ visit data from 2023 showing time from check-in to discharge is 80 minutes on average.

2Cost is based on health plan actuarial analysis performed in 2021 that compared cost of hospital-based ER visit vs a GuideWell Emergency Doctors visit.


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