Shortness of Breath

Image of Elderly Man CoughingChronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) happens when the airways in the lungs are blocked (obstructed) making it hard to breathe. You may have trouble with daily activities because of shortness of breath. Over time the shortness of breath usually worsens making it more and more difficult to take care of yourself and take part in activities.

Some 12 million Americans have COPD, according to the American Lung Association. Another 24 million may have the disease, but have not yet been diagnosed. In nearly 90 percent of all cases, COPD is caused by smoking.

Symptoms of COPD

  • Chronic cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
  • Wheezing
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest

For a digital version of our Living Well with COPD guide or to download and print, click here.

Although COPD is a serious illness it can be controlled with good health habits, diet, breathing exercises, and changes in your environment. COPD can't be cured, but you can take steps to keep your symptoms under control and slow the disease’s progress:

  • Take your medicine
  • Do not smoke
  • Clear your mucus
  • Save energy and breathe easy
  • Practice good hygiene
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid secondhand smoke
  • Avoid sick people
  • Avoid dust and strong smell

There are two forms of COPD: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Both facets of the disease are serious, because they mean your lungs can’t get enough oxygen into your body to sustain the good health of your heart and other major organs.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis occurs when the cells in the airways make more mucus than normal. The mucus builds up, narrowing the airways which means less air travels into and out of the lungs. The lining of the airways may also become inflamed (swollen) and causes the airways to narrow even more.


Emphysema causes the small airways to become damaged and lose their stretchiness. The airways collapse when you exhale, causing air to get trapped in the air sacs. This means that less oxygen enters the blood vessels and less oxygen is delivered to all of the cells of your body, making it hard to breathe.


Your healthcare provider will work with you to prescribe the best treatments for your COPD. Recommendations may include the following:

  • Medicines – Some medicines help relieve symptoms when you have them. Others are taken daily to control inflammation in the lungs. Always take your medicines as prescribed. Learn the names of your medicines, as well as how and when to use them.
  • Oxygen therapy – Oxygen may be prescribed if tests show that your blood contains too little oxygen.
  • Smoking – If you smoke, quit. Smoking is the main cause of COPD. Quitting will help you be able to better manage your COPD. Ask your healthcare provider about ways to help you quit smoking.
  • Avoiding infections – Infections, like a cold or the flu, can cause your symptoms to worsen. Try to stay away from people who are sick. Wash your hands often. And, ask your healthcare provider about vaccines for the flu and pneumonia.