Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a disease that is actually characterized by two lung diseases. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two similar lung diseases that cause obstruction in the airways, making breathing more difficult. If either or both are diagnosed, then the individual has COPD.
With chronic bronchitis, there is inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes. The inflammation reduces air flow and causes the production of excessive phlegm. Over time, the chronic inflammation leads to scarring and thickening of the tissue, along with a permanent cough.
In emphysema the alveoli, or air sacs in the lungs, are damaged. This is a process that generally occurs over time, usually with exposure to smoke. The alveoli grow thin and weak, eventually developing holes in the lung tissue.
The lungs also become less flexible. And as the air sacs are destroyed, the oxygenation process of the lungs is reduced in efficiency, leaving the person short of breath and weakened by the lack of sufficient oxygen to the rest of the body.
Unknown to most, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. However, it is in large part preventable. By far the most common risk factor for the development of COPD is smoking. According to national statistics, 85 to 90 of every 100 COPD deaths are caused by smoking. Other causes include second-hand smoke, a history of childhood respiratory infections, and exposure to air pollution or chemicals.