Understanding the Two Main Types of COPD

Both Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis Cause Difficulty Breathing

Senior woman holding chest in pain
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If you have been diagnosed with the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you should know that there are different types of the condition. It's estimated that 5 percent of the population has COPD. The condition kills more than 120,000 Americans every year—but proper management can prolong your life and improve your quality of life.

Two Types Of COPD

COPD is an umbrella term for disorders that are characterized by obstruction of the airways and limitation to airflow.

People with COPD have trouble breathing and shortness of breath. The two main diseases that fall under the scope of COPD are: 

Many people with COPD have a combination of the two subtypes.


Emphysema is a common type of COPD in which the air sacs of the lungs become damaged, causing them to enlarge and burst. Damage in this area makes it difficult for people with emphysema to expel air from their lungs. This leads to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body and a myriad of emphysema signs and symptoms

The symptoms of emphysema include:

  • shortness of breath
  • an ongoing feeling of not being able to get enough air
  • long-term cough 
  • wheezing
  • long-term mucus production
  • ongoing fatigue

More than 3 million Americans have been diagnosed with emphysema. Learn more about emphysema:

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation and irritation of the airways, the tubes in your lungs where air passes through. When the air tubes are inflamed and irritated, thick mucus begins to form in them.

Over time, this mucus plugs up airways and makes breathing difficult. When you cough this mucus up, the excretions are known as sputum or phlegm. 

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • having a cough on most days for at least 3 months, for 2 years in a row
  • coughing or spitting up clear or white mucus
  • feeling very tired
  • feeling short of breath
  • chest discomfort or tightness

The number of adults with diagnosed chronic bronchitis in the past year is 8.7 million. Discover how to manage chronic bronchitis:

Improving Your COPD Symptoms

While each type of COPD follows a specific developmental course, they both begin with an airway irritant. In fact, there are four common causes of COPD that are totally preventable. These are:

Although COPD is chronic and cannot be cured, it can be treated and managed. Doctors agree that the single best thing you can do to improve your symptoms—regardless of the type of COPD you have—is to quit smoking. If you continue smoking, your COPD will quickly worsen over time.


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