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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Smoking is Usually the Cause and Quitting Helps

Commercial advertisements have helped familiarize the public with COPD, a term which refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. COPD includes emphysema; chronic bronchitis; and in some cases, asthma. November is National COPD Awareness Month, a time to learn about COPD symptoms and prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes COPD as a condition in which less air flows through the airways—the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. In the early stages of COPD, there may be no symptoms, or only mild symptoms, such as:

  • A nagging cough (often called “smoker’s cough”)
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing)
  • Tightness in the chest

As the disease gets worse, symptoms may include:

  • Having trouble catching your breath or talking
  • Blue or gray lips and/or fingernails (a sign of low oxygen levels in the blood)
  • Trouble with mental alertness
  • A very fast heartbeat
  • Swelling in the feet and ankles
  • Weight loss

Most often, COPD is caused by smoking. Smoking accounts for as many as 8 out of 10 COPD-related deaths. However, as many as 1 out of 4 Americans with COPD never smoked cigarettes. Smoking during the childhood and teenage years can slow the way lungs grow and develop. This can increase the risk of developing COPD in adulthood.

How severe COPD symptoms become depend on the amount of damage to the lungs. If a person keeps smoking, the damage will worsen faster than if he or she stops smoking. Among 15 million U.S. adults with COPD, more than one-third (39 percent) continue to smoke.

The best way to prevent COPD is to never start smoking. Smokers should quit and avoid secondhand smoke. For those ready to quit, help is available at no charge. Alabama residents may call the Alabama Tobacco Quitline toll free at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or visit The Quitline provides free individualized coaching to help tobacco users quit. The Quitline also offers up to 8 weeks of free nicotine patches to those medically eligible and enrolled in the program. Services from the Quitline are available 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Even though there is no cure for COPD, lifestyle changes and treatments can help make breathing easier, allow for more activity, and slow the progress of disease.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(November 2019)

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Page last updated: November 5, 2019