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Chronic obstructive lung disease, also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a general term for a group of conditions in which there is persistent difficulty in expelling (or exhaling) air from the lungs. COPD commonly refers to two related, progressive diseases of the respiratory system, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Because smoking is the major cause of both diseases, chronic bronchitis and emphysema often occur together in the same patient.
COPD is one of the fastest-growing health problems. Nearly 16 million people in the United States, 14 million with chronic bronchitis and two million with emphysema, suffer from COPD. COPD is responsible for more than 96,000 deaths annually, making it the fourth leading cause of death. Although COPD is more common in men than women, the increase in incidence of smoking among women since World War II has produced an increase in deaths from COPD in women. COPD has a large economic impact on the healthcare system and a destructive impact on the lives of patients and their families. Quality of life for a person with COPD decreases as the disease progresses.
In chronic bronchitis, chronic inflammation caused by cigarette smoking results in a narrowing of the openings in the bronchi, the large air tubes of the respiratory system, and interferes with the flow of air. Inflammation also causes the glands that line the bronchi to produce excessive amounts of mucus, further narrowing the airways and blocking airflow. The result is often a chronic cough that produces sputum (mainly mucus) and shortness of breath. Cigarette smoke also damages the cilia, small hair-like projections that move bacteria and foreign particles out of the lungs, increasing the risk of infections.
Emphysema is a disease in which cigarette smoke causes an overproduction of the enzyme elastase, one of the immune system's infection-fighting biochemicals. This results in irreversible destruction of a protein in the lung called elastin which is important for maintaining the structure of the walls of the alveoli, the terminal small air sacs of the respiratory system. As the walls of the alveoli rupture, the number of alveoli is reduced and many of those remaining are enlarged, making the lungs of the patient with emphysema less elastic and overinflated. Due to the higher pressure inside the chest that must be developed to force air out of the less-elastic lungs, the bronchioles, small air tubes of the respiratory system, tend to collapse during exhalation. Stale air gets trapped in the air sacs and fresh air cannot be brought in.
Author Info: Harry W. Golden, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 2002This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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