Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an umbrella term for several lung conditions— chronic bronchitis and emphysema, mainly. COPD can result in disability and even death. According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Many people have COPD and aren’t even aware of it. Find out what causes COPD and partner with your physician for the best course of disease management.
Lung irritants. Exposure to lung irritants may end up injuring the lungs and airways. These irritants include smoking (the leading cause of COPD), breathing in secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, environmental or workplace dust, and particulate matter. The irritants gradually destroy the inner walls of the alveoli in the lungs. Alveoli that are damaged in this way cannot exchange oxygen in sufficient quantity and quality. Since the alveoli are so damaged, the natural breathing weakens the walls further so they collapse when you exhale. This traps air in the alveoli, causing shortness of breath since the chest muscles have to work harder to squeeze out all the air.
Inflammation. The inflammation and narrowing of the airways leading to your lungs, as in chronic bronchitis, result in irritation to the airways. This irritation leads to coughing and an overproduction of mucus. The copious mucus complicates this condition by making it even harder to breathe and further blocking these already narrowed tubes.
Less common causes of COPD. In smaller cases, the causes of COPD are genetic. The condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency is a genetically linked low level of AAT — an important protein that is made in the liver. Without this protein, people can develop lung damage and COPD. Having this condition compounded by exposure to lung irritants can exacerbate COPD very rapidly.