What is COPD?

Andrew J. Halayko, PhD, FCAHS, ATSF
Chairperson, National Board of Directors, The Canadian Lung Association
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Lung Pathobiology and Treatment
Physiology and Pathophysiology, University of Manitoba

Breathing is not a luxury. Breathing is something everyone should be able to do with ease and enjoy all of life’s emotions and experiences as a result. Healthy lungs mean you can laugh, sing, take a deep breath, exercise and pursue your passions. Whether it’s bee keeping or another pastime, the ability to breathe is undeniably a factor many take for granted; yet it is something the absence of which might make their hobby impossible. Take a breath as you read this and imagine not being able to take the next one.

Millions of Canadians live that hypothetical every day. Some lung diseases are well-known and treatable; many are not.  About 750,000 Canadians have COPD – that’s more than the population of Vancouver. COPD is a serious lung disease that makes breathing incredibly difficult for those who have it. One part of the disease, called chronic bronchitis, makes your lungs and airways swollen with too much mucus so you cough and have difficulty moving air in and out of your lungs. Another part of the disease, called emphysema, involves the progressive destruction of precious lung tissue that is vital for the transfer of oxygen to the blood for its life-supporting delivery to all tissues. Eventually COPD makes your lungs plugged up and “floppy”, which means you cannot get air in easily, you cough up phlegm, and you feel fatigued. This takes away the capacity of individuals to walk, ride a bike, and climb stairs, or to easily perform everyday activities.

Unfortunately, it’s also a disease that is often accompanied by stigma and negative connotations due to its primary cause being tobacco use. Regardless of the cause or the disease, no one deserves to be judged or shamed.

Given that COPD is the second leading cause of being admitted to the hospital (first being childbirth) and the fourth leading cause of death in Canada and worldwide, it’s a disease that deserves our attention. The Canadian Lung Association continues to fund research in this important area. The goal is to understand the disease better and help improve the quality of life for those who have it.

If you wish to learn more about COPD or donate to The Canadian Lung Association and help put air back into Canadians’ lungs, visit

What is COPD?
COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

What causes COPD?
In 80-90% of cases, it is caused by smoking. Other causes of COPD can include:

  • genetic reasons (over 100 gene changes are associated with COPD, including alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency)
  • occupational dusts and chemicals
  • second hand smoke
  • frequent lung infections as a child
  • wood smoke and other biomass (animal dung, crop residues) fuel used for cooking. 

What are the symptoms of COPD?
People with COPD usually have one or more of these symptoms:

  • a cough that lasts a long time (longer than 3 months)
  • a cough with mucus
  • feeling short of breath
  • lung infections (the flu, acute bronchitis, pneumonia, etc) that may last longer than other people you know
  • wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe)
  • feeling tired.
  • losing weight without trying

What’s the treatment?
COPD can't be cured, but it can be treated. Early diagnosis, lifestyle changes and appropriate drug treatments can help you lead a normal and active life, feel better and stay out of hospital.

Quitting smoking is the most important step in treating your COPD.
It helps to quit smoking, even if you already have COPD. In fact, quitting smoking is the best thing you can do to feel better. COPD will get worse if you continue to smoke or are around second-hand smoke or air pollution.

What research is there currently in place?
There are a number of interesting projects currently in place. In fact, The Canadian Lung Association invested nearly $1.7 million into 51 COPD research projects since 2012. COPD remains one of the top priorities for the Association.

For more information about COPD, including free health information resources, list of projects currently funded by The Canadian Lung Association and to donate, visit