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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

The Challenge of COPD

Am I at Risk?

James Kiley, Ph.D., director of the Division of Lung Diseases at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at NIH
Photo Courtesy of NHLBI

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, kills more than 130,000 people a year. It's the third-leading cause of death in this country. There are as many as 24 million people that have this disease, and as many as half of those people don't know that they have COPD. That means that COPD affects someone you know.

When NHLBI launched the Learn More Breathe Better® campaign in 2007, we had very little information or awareness of COPD. Now, we can say with confidence that many, many Americans know what those four letters stand for. I'm very happy to say that today, all 50 states in the U.S. have COPD awareness programs.

Providers need to know we have tools, such as spirometers, bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, and pulmonary rehabilitation. We can control symptoms like chronic cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, excess sputum, and difficulty breathing.

The patient needs to know that if they don't talk to the doctor, they're not going to be able to get the doctor to provide them the information and help they need.

COPD is a preventable disease. If we take steps toward identifying people early, those at risk, and we provide them the educational materials, open a dialogue, and treat them, they will live a better life, and they'll breathe better.

Top COPD Diagnosis Barriers Health Care Providers Encounter: 48% of patients don't fully report symptoms; 35% of patients don't fully report smoking history; 30% of patients have more immediate health issues.

Am I at Risk?

Most people who are at risk for getting COPD have never even heard of it and, in many cases, don't even realize that the condition has a name. Some of the things that put you at risk for COPD include:


COPD most often occurs in people age 40 and over with a history of smoking (either current or former smokers), although as many as one out of six people with COPD never smoked. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD. It accounts for as many as nine out of 10 COPD-related deaths.

Environmental Exposure

COPD can also occur in people who have had long-term exposure to things that can irritate your lungs, like certain chemicals, dust, or fumes in the workplace. Heavy or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or other air pollutants may also contribute to COPD.

Genetic Factors

In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT, deficiency. While very few people know they have AAT deficiency, it is estimated that close to 100,000 Americans have it. People with AAT deficiency can get COPD even if they have never smoked or had long-term exposure to harmful pollutants.

For additional information on COPD, visit the NHLBI's Health Topics, MedlinePlus, or the American Lung Association's COPD information section.

COPD Learn More Breathe Better® Program

The COPD Learn More Breathe Better® program seeks to:

  • Bridge the gap between research and practice to:
    • Educate healthcare providers on the benefits of early diagnosis and appropriate selection of treatment options.
  • Provide empowering calls to action to:
    • Encourage people at risk for COPD to get a simple breathing test and talk to their healthcare provider about optimal treatment options.
    • Motivate those diagnosed with COPD to take personal ownership and responsibility for their overall care and treatment plans.

To Find Out More

Read More "The Challenge of COPD" Articles

Q&A: Grace Anne Koppel, Living Well with COPD / What is COPD? / What Causes COPD? / Getting Tested / Am I at Risk? / COPD Quiz

Fall 2014 Issue: Volume 9 Number 3 Page 8