Shortness of breath can be a symptom of COPD.

Get all the facts.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung diseases where people have difficulty breathing because their airways have been narrowed. It includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

It is estimated that 1.6 million Canadians live with it – yet it is believed that almost as many have COPD and don’t know it.

If you’re living with COPD, we’re here to help! We provide people living with COPD programs and resources to keep them out of hospital, so they can live their lives to the fullest.

Causes of COPD

  • Cigarette smoking is the most common risk factor, causing 80-90% of COPD cases
  • Other types of tobacco (pipe, cigar, water pipe), second-hand smoke, and cannabis are also risk factors
  • Workplace exposure to dusts, chemical agents and fumes account for approximately 10-15% of all COPD
    • Examples of occupations with an increased risk include farmers, welders, painters, railroad workers, miners, carpenters, metal workers, construction workers, and cement factory workers
  • Air pollution is linked to a decrease in lung function
  • Severe lung infections during childhood
  • Genetics/family history
    • e.g., Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency is a rare genetic disorder that increases the chance of developing emphysema
    • If one sibling has COPD, another sibling who smokes has a higher risk of developing COPD
  • Asthma/bronchial hyperreactivity:
    • Asthma may be a risk factor for the development of COPD
    • Bronchial hyperreactivity (overly sensitive airways) can exist without a diagnosis of asthma and has been shown to increase the risk of COPD
  • Lower socioeconomic status is a risk factor for COPD
  • Cooking and heating with biomass (e.g., wood, coal, crop waste) in homes with inadequate ventilation (this is more of a risk in developing countries but is also a risk in some parts of Canada due to wood burning)
Smoking is a common risk factor for COPD. Learn from Dr. Samir Gupta why now is the perfect time to quit!

Symptoms of COPD

  • Coughing

    A cough longer than 3+ months or a cough with mucous

  • Shortness of breath

    Feeling short of breath while doing everyday activities

  • Respiratory infection

    Lung infections that last a long time

  • Wheezing

  • Fatigue

  • Weight loss

    Losing weight without making a conscious effort to

How COPD is Diagnosed

Spirometry is a simple breathing test that measures the speed and the amount of air you are able to blow out of your lungs. Your healthcare provider may also refer you for other pulmonary function tests
Chest X-Ray
A chest x-ray may be useful to show some signs of COPD and to rule out other disorders, but should not be used to confirm the diagnosis of COPD.
A chest x-ray may be useful to show some signs of COPD and to rule out other disorders, but should not be used to confirm the diagnosis of COPD.​
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COPD Treatment Options

Although there is no cure for COPD, there are many ways to help you manage it. COPD severity ranges from mild to very severe. What is needed to manage COPD is different from one person to the next. Here are some of the strategies that can help you take control:

  • Work With Your Healthcare Provider

    Work with your healthcare provider on finding the right treatments for you. Ask your healthcare provider to fill out a COPD action plan for you. An action plan can help you decide what to do if you think you might be having a COPD flare-up or lung attack (exacerbation). Review your COPD action plan with your healthcare provider at every visit. Ask your healthcare provider for a referral to a local COPD education program, pulmonary rehabilitation program, or support program. Schedule regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider

  • Live a Smoke-Free Life

    If you smoke, quitting is the most important step you can take to slow the progression of the disease.

  • Take Your Medications as Prescribed

    Take your COPD medications as prescribed Learn how to use your inhalers properly and check that you are using them correctly at every visit to your healthcare provider If you have been prescribed oxygen therapy, use it as directed

  • Reduce Your Risk of a COPD Flare-Up

    Get a flu vaccine every year and ask your healthcare provider about getting a pneumonia vaccine Use a proper hand-washing technique to reduce the risk of getting an infection Stay away from people who are sick with a cold, flu, or other infection Try to avoid irritants and allergens that can cause your symptoms to worsen

  • Stay Active

    Daily exercise is important for everyone including people with COPD. Even if you have severe COPD, you can still exercise – exercise within your limits, and take plenty of breaks. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on developing a regular exercise routine. Ask to be referred to a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

Breathing Techniques

The Lung Health Foundation is committed to supporting  those affected by this progressive but treatable disease to live their best life. Here you can find the ‘need to know’ info on COPD, including what causes flare-ups, treatment and management.

 Have questions about COPD?

Our Lung Health Line is a free, confidential service offered between 9:00 am – 4:00 pm Monday to Friday. To speak with a Certified Respiratory Educator (a healthcare professional with special training in COPD) call 1-888-344-LUNG (5864) or email at