What Does COPD Stand For?

We see the abbreviation often, but what does COPD stand for? The answer: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—a condition that leads to blockage and damage to your airways. Here, we explain COPD one letter at a time.

what does copd stand for

What does COPD stand for? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a debilitating condition for which there isn't a cure. Rather, those who suffer from COPD need to manage its symptoms.

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When former First Lady Barbara Bush died at 92 on April 17, 2018, reports circulated that she suffered from COPD. But what exactly is the ailment, and what does COPD stand for?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a debilitating respiratory condition for which there isn’t a cure. It results in chronic coughing and shortness of breath. Treatments ranging from inhalers to medications to surgery may help those with COPD to manage its symptoms.

COPD affects some 16 million people, making it the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease and stroke. Mrs. Bush, who also struggled with congestive heart failure and Graves’ disease, had been a smoker for decades, but quit in 1968. It may have contributed to her COPD.

What Does COPD Stand For?

It’s easier to remember the COPD definition—and understand it—when you break it down letter by letter:

  • Chronic: Usually refers to a disease or medical condition that has lasted for at least three months. In the cases of serious health challenges, such as COPD or lung cancer, the word “chronic” also suggests that the condition is likely to get worse over time.
  • Obstructive: In this case, it refers to a blockage in some part of your airways or another problem that makes normal breathing more difficult. If you have COPD, inflammation caused by chronic bronchitis causes an overproduction of mucus, which leads to an obstruction in your airway.
  • Pulmonary: Refers to the lungs. Your lungs are filled with tiny air sacs called alveoli at the very ends of the airway known as bronchi. To work properly, alveoli need to stretch like balloons. The sacs should fill up with air when you inhale and then empty with each exhale. COPD causes the alveoli to lose their elasticity, making it more difficult to expel each breath. When you can’t breath out, it’s hard to breath in, and the breathing difficulty associated with COPD can result.
  • Disease: A disorder that affects a particular part of the body and produces symptoms. However, COPD can lead to complications elsewhere in the body, too. The arteries that supply blood to the lungs—which remove carbon dioxide from blood cells and replace it with oxygen—can become damaged by COPD. This can then lead to problems such as pulmonary hypertension and heart disease. Difficulty breathing can also take their toll on your emotional and mental health. Your risk of depression is higher if you have COPD.

Under the COPD Umbrella

The COPD definition—characterized by coughing and shortness of breath—actually has a broad meaning. The term is used to describe several lung diseases, but primarily emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

It’s worth noting that chronic bronchitis is different from acute bronchitis, which is a temporary inflammation of the mucus membrane in the bronchial tubes, often caused by a virus. Acute bronchitis can often be treated and resolved within two to three weeks without long-term or chronic problems.

So what does COPD stand for if it’s actually referring to emphysema and chronic bronchitis? Why do health experts group these conditions together under one broad term? Well, according to the National Institutes of Health, most people who have COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It makes sense to view these patients as having a single, but complex, respiratory condition.


While there is no cure for COPD, there are ways to relieve its effects. See these University Health News posts for details:

However, ask your doctor the question “What does COPD stand for?” and you might get a slightly different answer than what we’ve described above. For example, you may have chronic bronchitis without the airway problems associated with emphysema. So your physician may diagnose you as having chronic bronchitis only. Just know that one doctor’s COPD definition may be different than another’s. The key in addressing it is to be proactive.

Is There a Cure for COPD?

COPD is one of the most debilitating conditions in the United States. Although it’s not curable, there are treatments that include medications, inhalers, and, in serious cases, surgery. Don’t hesitate to see your doctor if you have a nagging cough or shortness of breath. The sooner you can quit smoking or start treatment, the better your quality of life will be.

And if you don’t yet have the symptoms of COPD, talk with your healthcare provider about what you can do avoid problems down the road. Obviously, quitting smoking is the best thing, if you’re a smoker. Even if you’ve smoked for years, you can start to restore lung and heart health as soon as you quit.


“What does COPD stand for?” Well, for about half of the 30 million people in the U.S. who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the answer may remain unknown. That’s because approximately 16 million people have COPD symptoms but have not been officially diagnosed.

Other important numbers include:

  • About 7 million women in the U.S. live with COPD, but many of them don’t know it. Unfortunately, COPD is often misdiagnosed in women as asthma. This misdiagnosis leads to a delay in getting proper treatment. Since 2000, more women than men have died from COPD. Women are more vulnerable to the effects of COPD because they have smaller lungs, and the decrease in estrogen levels after menopause appears to play a role in worsening COPD.
  • More than twice as many people have chronic bronchitis as emphysema. The majority of those people are over the age of 45. Women are about twice as likely as men to have chronic bronchitis. The rates of men with emphysema are declining, while the rates for women are on the rise.
  • COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. (behind heart disease and cancer). It accounts for about 147,000 deaths annually. Rates of COPD are highest in the Midwest and the Southeast.
  • About 3 million people around the world die of COPD. The vast majority of COPD cases are found in low- and middle-income countries, because they have fewer well-implemented prevention and treatment programs.
  • Smoking is linked to about 80 percent of all COPD deaths. Exposure to workplace pollutants is associated with nearly 19 percent of COPD cases in the U.S., according to one study. In poor countries, exposure to cooking fuels in badly ventilated homes is a major cause.
  • Health officials believe the numbers of people who will die of COPD will grow in the next several years, due to higher smoking prevalence around the world and to aging populations.
  • COPD develops slowly, over a period of years, but symptoms usually start to become obvious after age 50.

Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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