Healthy Living

COPD: Definition, Epidemiology & Etiology

COPD: Definition, Epidemiology & Etiology.

Our respiratory system is a complex machine comprised of small parts that ensure its smooth functioning. Even a small hindrance in any of the links can cause a complication in the respiratory system, which could result in severe health issues.

There are many types of respiratory diseases, the most common and dangerous being chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a large term that encompasses a number of lung diseases, some of which include: emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory asthma, and various other forms of bronchiectasis. One of the key characteristics of this disease is shortness of breath that gradually develops into sudden breathlessness.

Often, breathlessness and coughing are ignored by people and thought to be a common problem associated with aging. However, symptoms like this could require a deeper diagnosis. Most of the time, the disease goes unnoticed in the early stages due to a lack of any significant symptoms. COPD could remain dormant in a person for a while until one notices shortness of breath due to an underlying health condition. In most cases, symptoms develop in later stages of the illness. Hence, any form of symptoms that one notices should not be ignored and must be discussed with the doctor to rule out any form of serious infections or diseases that could lead to others, like COPD.

What Is COPD?

COPD is characterized by limited airflow, which is almost always irreversible. It is a serious lung disease and, over time, it can make it harder for you to breathe. COPD is a long-term disease that often gets worse over time. 


The two main types of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Many people with COPD can have both types.

Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a chronic cough with persistent production of mucoid sputum. Emphysema is the permanent dilation of the air spaces distal to the bronchial tree. To develop clinical COPD, a large area of the lung would have to undergo emphysematous changes.

Both of these conditions contribute to a variable degree of COPD in individuals.


COPD is the third most common cause of death and the fifth most common cause of disability worldwide, especially in the elderly. The number of individuals with COPD increases each year. Millions of people are diagnosed with COPD annually, in addition to the individuals who have COPD, but are not aware of it, or are undiagnosed.

COPD is more common in middle-aged individuals. In developed countries, smoking cigarettes accounts for over 90% of COPD cases. However, only 10% to 20% of smokers develop COPD. This indicates that an individual's susceptibility and other environmental factors play a role in the development of this disease.

Etiology (Causes)

There are several risk factors associated with COPD. If you are exposed to any of these risk factors for a long period of time, you are more susceptible to COPD:

  • Tobacco smoking: Cigarette smoking is the most significant and prevalent cause of COPD. Prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke impairs the ciliary movement, and produces hypertrophy and hyperplasia of the mucous-secreting glands in your respiratory tract. It also inhibits anti-proteases and causes neutrophils to release proteolytic enzymes, which may contribute to lung injury.
  • Environmental tobacco smoke
  • Air pollution: Long-standing exposure to smoke from biomass fuels and other industrial gases increases the risk of developing COPD. The higher the exposure, the more frequent the exacerbations of COPD.
  •  Occupation: People in occupations that are highly exposed to organic or inorganic dusts are at a higher risk of developing COPD.
  •  Recurrent respiratory tract infections: Recurrent respiratory tract infections, such as influenza and pneumonia, are often the precipitating cause of acute exacerbations of COPD. During an infection, neutrophils are attracted to the infection site and release enzymes, which may contribute to lung damage.
  •  Biology: A few studies with monozygotic twins have suggested some genetic predisposition for the disease. Alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency predisposes a person to COPD.

Life Expectancy With COPD

One question people often have is about how quickly a person with COPD worsens, or rather, what the life expectancy is for a person suffering with COPD. Early or stage 1 COPD is often mild.

Various factors determine how a person could worsen in this stage of COPD. Their overall health condition also really matters in this stage of the disease. If a person is a smoker, it is important they quit and receive medical aid. Usually, COPD takes years before it starts to worsen.

In the case of someone suffering from stage 1 COPD, there are several other factors that come into play, like age, other underlying medical ailments, and their overall health.

There are certain environmental triggers that can suddenly worsen the COPD condition, causing a person to be hospitalized for detailed treatment. It is important to identify these triggers early so as to avoid them. Consistent lung damage is the main reason that the life span of a person suffering from COPD is shortened.

Is COPD Reversible?

COPD is one of the leading causes of death in the United States (U.S.); it is as fatal as cancer or a heart attack. In most cases, smoking is the leading cause of COPD, which results in irreparable lung damage. However, making certain lifestyle changes and taking the appropriate treatment at an early stage of COPD can help better manage the condition and slow its progression.

Preventing COPD From Worsening

Education and self-care are the keys to managing COPD effectively and preventing it from growing worse. Often, COPD is thought of as the end battle by many people, who give up before they even start working towards bettering their condition. It is very important to take action as early as possible so the condition does not deteriorate, which can happen rather fast with COPD.

There are crucial steps to prevent the disease from worsening, such as:

  • Quit smoking: Kick that cigarette out of your life, as it only does you more harm than good. It is one of the most effective steps you will take towards improving your lung health.
  • Exercise well: Like every part of your body, your lungs need a workout, too. Staying healthy and active helps you maintain your weight and keep your organs young and in working condition. Exercise can be your best tool in battling any health condition.
  • Eat right: For a COPD patient, even a simple task like breathing requires a good deal of energy and force compared to a normal person. Speak to your doctor about your diet and make sure you eat healthy and freshly-cooked foods to prevent infections that could complicate your condition. Ensure you get the right amount of calories to carry on your daily task without difficulty.
  • Watch out for irritants: There are various irritants found in the environment that can directly or indirectly act as triggers and cause a breathing attack. Irritants like dust, pollution, and indirect smoke can all act as hazards that could aggravate your COPD.
  • Follow your treatment to the tee: Do not take your suggested treatment lightly. Follow the medications and alternative treatments (if any) suggested by your doctor precisely. It is important you take your treatment seriously to improve your quality of life and better deal with the disease.
  • Do not delay calling your doctor: If you notice any of your symptoms worsening, call your doctor immediately. It is important that you are aware of your own signs and symptoms of COPD so you can better notice when and if they become worse. If you find anything unusual, even if does not resemble a COPD symptom, speak to your doctor immediately.

Suffering from a lung condition may seem like the end of life, but it really isn’t. No doubt a number of lifestyle changes will likely occur and you may be deprived of a number of activities you enjoyed before, but with the right treatment plan and lifestyle alterations, you can still enjoy a normal life to a large extent.