Catawba Valley Healthcare is an independent, comprehensive, non-profit healthcare organization that offers a wide range of whole-person healthcare and services that integrate physical and mental health.


COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is an umbrella term for a group of progressive and chronic inflammatory lung diseases that create obstructed airflow from the lungs. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema can both result in COPD. A diagnosis means you may have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, or symptoms of both. COPD can progress gradually, making it increasingly difficult to breathe over time.

COPD affects nearly 16 million Americans or about 6% of the entire U.S. population.


Chronic COPD

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Breathing difficulty and possibly wheezing
  • Severe and frequent coughing
  • Excessive mucus (sputum)

Chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes) and emphysema (destruction of the alveoli sacs in the lungs) are the most common conditions that contribute to COPD. These conditions are usually caused by long-term exposure to fire smoke, irritating gases, particulate matter from cigarettes, or other toxins.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis irritates the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. The tubes swell, and mucus (phlegm) builds up along its lining. This buildup makes it hard to get air in and out of the lungs because the small, hair-like structures inside the tubes that usually move the mucus away are damaged by the irritation.


Emphysema is the breakdown of the tiny air sacs (alveoli) at the end of the bronchial tubes. These air sacs play an essential role in transferring oxygen into your blood and removing carbon dioxide. The damage to these alveioli walls caused by emphysema makes it hard to get a full breath.

Diagnosing COPD

To diagnose whether you have COPD, your provider will take your medical history, perform a physical exam, and order needed tests. 

Medical questions you may be asked:

  • Do you smoke?
  • Have you had long-term exposure to dust or air pollutants?
  • Have you been coughing or wheezing for a long time?
  • Do you cough up phlegm?
  • Do you get short of breath with exercise? When resting?

Your physical exam will include:

  • Listening to your lungs and heart
  • Checking your pulse and blood pressure 
  • Examining your throat and nose 
  • Checking your ankles for swelling.

Tests might include:

  • Spirometry to test how well your lungs are working
  • Pulse oximetry to measure the oxygen level in your blood
  • Chest X-ray or chest CT scan to look at your lungs
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to rule out heart disease as the cause of your shortness of breath
  • Exercise testing to determine if the oxygen level when exercising is normal

People with COPD are at increased risk of developing infections, lung cancer, heart disease, and other medical conditions. COPD is a progressive disease, but a treatable one. With good management, COPD can be reduced, and the risk of these other associated diseases decreased.

    COPD Treatment

    COPD treatment focuses on lessening breathing problems, coughing, and the risk of respiratory infections.
    Treatment options include:

    • Bronchodilators are medicines that relax airways with an inhalable mist to help you breathe easier.
    • Anti-inflammatory medications such as steroids lower inflammation in the lungs. Steroids can be inhaled in a mist form (nebulizer or inhaler) or take in pill form.
    • Supplemental oxygen may be needed if you have low blood oxygen (hypoxemia). This may be supplied with a portable oxygen tank.
    • Antibiotics may be prescribed to stop a bacterial infection.
    • Vaccinations for flu and pneumonia are critical because infections are more dangerous if you have COPD.
    • Rehabilitation focuses on teaching effective breathing strategies to lessen your shortness of breath and improve your fitness level.
    • Anticholinergics can relax the muscle bands that tighten around the airways.  Anticholinergics work differently and more slowly than fast-acting bronchodilators.
    • Expectorants are used to thin mucus in the airways so you can cough mucus out more easily. 
    • Antihistamines relieve stuffy heads, watery eyes, and sneezing. 
    • Antivirals might be prescribed to treat or prevent illnesses caused by viruses.

    COPD progresses at different rates in different people. While lung damage from COPD cannot be reversed, you can manage the symptoms and breathe easier by following healthier lifestyle habits and avoiding infections.

    Call Catawba Valley Healthcare today for an evaluation and treatment of COPD at (828) 695-5900.