Skip to Main Content

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a combined diagnosis of both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Patients with COPD have difficulty breathing that typically progresses over time.

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people with this disease are former or current smokers. However, COPD can be caused by other conditions, such as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or by excessive exposure to lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust.

In COPD, the following changes occur in the lungs:

  • The airways and air sacs lose their elasticity, reducing the flow of air into and out of the body.
  • The walls of the air sacs are destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed, resulting in increased production of mucus.

COPD is most often diagnosed during middle or old age, and although there is currently no cure, treatment can help you feel better and stay active, and can slow the progression of the disease.

According to the American Lung Association, more than 11 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COPD, but as many as 24 million may have COPD and not know it. It is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.


COPD develops slowly and worsens over time. Symptoms may include:

  • A regular cough that may produce mucus
  • Shortness of breath, especially during exercise
  • Wheezing when you breathe
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest
  • Frequent episodes of colds and flu.

Symptoms of COPD usually begin after age 40. Some people report swelling of the ankles, feet or legs; unexplained weight loss; and decreased muscle endurance as the disease progresses.


The doctors at Norton Thoracic Institute (NTI) specialize in treating patients with advanced or end-stage cases of COPD, helping manage its symptoms and restoring a higher quality of life. As part of the diagnostic process for COPD, you may undergo the following exams:

  • An initial appointment at which you and your doctor will discuss your medical history, symptoms, family history of disease, and history of smoking or exposure to lung irritants
  • Lung function tests to assess your breathing
  • A chest x-ray or CT scan to examine your heart, lungs, and blood vessels for signs of COPD or other conditions
  • Blood tests to measure the level of oxygen in your blood, assess the severity of your condition, test for underlying causes that may contribute to your COPD, and help determine whether you would benefit from oxygen therapy
  • Exercise testing to evaluate your functional status and determine your need for supplementary oxygen.


As of yet, there is no cure for COPD. However, medical treatment and lifestyle changes can help you feel better, become more active, and slow the progression of the disease.

  • Quitting smoking is the single most important step you can take to treat COPD. Your doctor at NTI can discuss programs and products that can help you quit.
  • Inhalers and other medications may be prescribed to treat your COPD. Bronchodilators relax the muscles around your airways, opening them up and making breathing easier. Inhaled steroids are used to treat flare-ups of COPD symptoms. These medicines may reduce inflammation in the airways.
  • Many patients with COPD attend pulmonary rehabilitation to learn how to manage their disease, live as actively as possible, and avoid complications.
  • Oxygen therapy often helps to improve the level of oxygen in the blood.
  • Surgery is a last resort, reserved for patients with severe symptoms that do not respond to medication. The team at NTI offers a variety of surgical options, including lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplantation. The Norton Lung Transplant Center is the largest center for lung transplantation in the western United States and is known for streamlined processes that speed up treatment and produce exceptional outcomes.

Living with COPD

  • Quitting smoking is critical to treating COPD. We can provide resources to help you stop.
  • Avoid second-hand smoke and lung irritants, including pollution, dust, and chemical fumes. If the air outside is polluted or dusty, keep your windows shut and, if at all possible, stay inside.
  • See your doctor regularly and follow your plan of care.
  • Talk to your doctor about how you can stay as active as possible with your condition.
  • Get recommended pneumonia and flu vaccines to avoid lung infections.
  • Find ways to minimize your exertion during activities of daily living. For example, put often-used items in one spot that is easy to reach, get help for physically demanding chores, and find simpler ways to do things.
  • Talk to others about your condition—both in person and online. Tell family and friends how you feel, and connect with others with the disease to learn how they cope.

Learn More About COPD Services at Norton Thoracic Institute

To learn more about our services, call (602) 406-4000.