According to American Lung Association, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States and an estimated 24 million may have the disease and know not it.

COPD is a lung disease that gradually makes breathing difficult. It's often misunderstood as just part of the aging process by those who are experiencing increased shortness of breath. Other symptoms include an ongoing cough that produces a lot of mucus, wheezing, easy fatigue or chest tightness.

Certain risk factors are known to cause COPD such as tobacco use, long-term exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes or dust; or recurrent airway infections. Having a discussion with your doctor is important to find out if you are at risk so that he or she can administer breathing tests, such as spirometry, at your next visit.

The good news about COPD is that it is preventable and treatable, experts say, especially if caught early. Since cigarette smoking causes the vast majority of COPD cases, the most important thing you can do to prevent COPD or slow its progression is to quit smoking or never start. Medication options include bronchodilators that help open the airways and steroids that help reduce inflammation.

Keeping your vaccines up-to-date such as flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough is important to help lower the risk of recurrent airway infections.

If you need help to quit smoking, go to our Healthy Living/We Can Help You Quit Smoking site.

Sources: American College of Chest Physicians; American Lung Association; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Last review date: February 7, 2019