What is COPD?

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a permanent narrowing of the airways that carry air in and out of your lungs. The airways become swollen and partly blocked by phlegm (pronounced "flem"). COPD also damages the tiny air sacs in your lungs, trapping air inside the lungs. Both of these conditions lead to breathing difficulties. The symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, cough, and coughing up phlegm.

If you have COPD, your symptoms can be caused by two major breathing conditions:

  • chronic bronchitis
  • emphysema
Chronic bronchitis
Normal airways

Normal airways

Airways stay open when the muscles around the airways are relaxed. No swelling occurs within the airways.

Airways of a person with COPD

Airways of a person with COPD

The airways become red, swollen and irritated. Extra phlegm blocks some air from passing through.

Emphysema
Normal air sacs

Normal air sacs

The tiny air sacs at the tip of the lungs are able to stretch and shrink as a person breathes.

Air sacs of a person with COPD

Air sacs of a person with COPD

The tiny air sacs become damaged, trapping air inside the lungs. This makes it hard to move air in and out of the lungs.

Who gets COPD?

Over 800,000 Canadians suffer from COPD.

Some people have COPD and don't even know it. Are you often short of breath, coughing, or coughing up phlegm? Use the COPD Screening Tool to see if you might have COPD.

What's the difference between mild, moderate, and severe COPD?

Your doctor may order a spirometry test to assess the severity of COPD. A spirometry test is a simple breathing test where you take a deep breath and blow into a machine, which measures how much air comes out and how quickly. The results of the test can help determine whether the COPD is mild, moderate, or severe. Your doctor may recommend different treatments depending on how severe your COPD is. Learn more about COPD treatments.

Type of COPD How it feels
Mild COPD You feel short of breath when hurrying or walking up a slight hill.
Moderate COPD You feel short of breath after walking for a few minutes on level ground.
Severe COPD You feel short of breath when doing simple tasks such as dressing or undressing, and may feel too breathless to leave the house.

Unfortunately, most people aren't diagnosed with COPD until the disease has already become quite advanced. By the time they are diagnosed, most people already have moderate or severe COPD.

What can I do?

If you have COPD, take the COPD Assessment TestTM to see if you should discuss optimal treatment with your doctor.