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NEWS | Nov. 30, 2022

COPD affects approximately 16 million Americans, making breathing difficult

By Bernard Little Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Command Communications

What is COPD?

“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a term used to describe chronic lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and is characterized by breathlessness. Some people with COPD also experience tiredness and chronic cough with or without mucus,” said Army Maj. (Dr.) Nikhil Huprikar, chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Service at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda, Maryland.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, COPD makes breathing difficult for the 16 million Americans who have this disease. Millions more people suffer from COPD but have not been diagnosed and are not being treated. Although there is no cure for COPD, it can be treated.

To draw greater attention to COPD and educate the public about the disease, November is annually observed as National COPD Awareness Month.

Huprikar and Army Maj. (Dr.) Arthur Holtzclaw, a pulmonologist and chief of Medicine at WRNMMC, explained symptoms of COPD can vary, but typically include decreased exercise tolerance, cough, and increased sputum production, in addition to breathlessness.

“COPD is usually diagnosed through lung function testing such as spirometry, which measures how well the lungs are working,” Huprikar explained. “A person may have COPD but not notice symptoms until it is in the moderate stage. Therefore, it’s important to ask your doctor about testing for COPD."

Testing for COPD is especially recommended if a person is a current or former smoker, has been exposed to harmful lung irritants for long periods of time, or has a family history of COPD, Holtzclaw added. In many cases, COPD may also be caused by inhaling air pollutants, including tobacco smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.) and second-hand smoke.

Work-related environmental factors, such as fumes, chemicals, and dust have also been linked to COPD.

Genetics has also played a role in the development of COPD, even if the person has never smoked or been exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace, according to the the CDC.

There is no cure for COPD, but some treatments can decrease breathlessness and increase a person’s ability to do activities, while other treatments may reduce the risk of exacerbations of the disease, Huprikar explained.

Treatments include inhaled medications called bronchodilators, as well as pulmonary rehabilitation, which can include exercise and oxygen therapy, according to health care providers.

Breathing from the diaphragm is an exercise for COPD. Also called abdominal or belly breathing, the abdomen should rise when you breathe in, and lower as you breathe out when doing diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm, the muscle separating the chest cavity from the stomach, is the main muscle for breathing. When the diaphragm tightens, the lungs expand. The diaphragm is designed to do most of the work of breathing. When a person has COPD, the diaphragm doesn’t work as well and muscles in the neck, shoulders, and back are used. These muscles don’t do much to move your air, according to the CDC.

“Training your diaphragm to take over more work of breathing can help,” CDC officials add. Diaphragmatic breathing is not as easy to do as pursed-lip breathing, so health care providers recommend people get instructions from a respiratory health care professional or physical therapist experienced in teaching it.

For more information about COPD and its treatment, visit the CDC website at