COPD Stages – Tips For Treatment and Management

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is one of the leading causes of death in America. It decreases lung function and interferes with your ability to breathe. With that being said, it affects millions of people worldwide and there are certain things you should know so that you can prevent it.

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

COPD, also known as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is a progressive disease that causes difficulty breathing. Common symptoms include tightness in the chest, wheezing, shortness of breath, and excessive production of mucus while coughing.

Approximately 75% of cases of COPD develop as a result of smoking. The other cases tend to develop by long-term exposure to irritants like fumes and air pollution. These irritants can damage the lungs in ways similar to smoking. COPD can also develop by a genetic issue known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AAT).

Most cases are diagnosed in middle age or older individuals. COPD is not contagious, so there is no risk of spreading it to others.

As a progressive disease, COPD patients get worse over time. In fact, there is a 40%-70% mortality rate over five years. The mortality rate depends mainly on the severity of the illness and any positive or negative lifestyle factors. There is no known cure, but there are steps that can be taken to minimize the effects. These are discussed in more detail below.

What are the Four Stages of COPD?

Doctors measure COPD in two ways. First, the GOLD (Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease) standard measures progress based on forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1). Essentially, this measures how much you can exhale to determine lung strength. Over time, conditions will worsen and you will typically progress to a higher stage.

The other measure is the BODE Index (Body Mass, Obstruction of Airflow, Dyspnea, and Exercise Capacity) Index, which primarily focuses on its effect on quality-of-life and severity of symptoms.

1. Mild Stage COPD

In the first stage, people have 80% or more of their normal lung strength. Many people in this stage don’t even realize they have COPD, although they may have slight coughing and feel like they’re not as strong as they used to be.

Medical treatments tend to be the most effective when they start early, which is why it’s important to see your doctor and have a physical on a regular basis.

2. Moderate Stage COPD

The second stage of COPD includes somewhere between 50% and 80% of normal lung capacity. This is the point when most people notice they have a problem, and in many cases will seek medical care for their trouble breathing.

COPD does not have a cure, but doctors often recommend pulmonary rehabilitation to patients who have this stage of COPD. This rehabilitation is a combination of education, support, and exercise, with the express goal of helping patients learn how to breathe better.

3. Severe Stage COPD

Severe COPD is characterized by lung strength between 30% and 50% of normal. People at this stage tend to experience a significant drop in their quality of life, most often experiencing fatigue and difficulty exercising.

Medication is significantly more common at this stage, with prescriptions including steroids and combination inhalers to help reduce inflammation and allow the body to function as smoothly as possible.

4. Very Severe Stage COPD

End-stage COPD is characterized by lung strength of less than 30%. Even relatively minor breathing issues can be potentially fatal, and the general lack of oxygen can lead directly to other medical problems. To combat this, doctors may suggest oxygen therapy.

Doctors recommend that people only use oxygen therapy when they are in the sever stage of COPD. Otherwise, it might be ineffective. Basically, oxygen therapy uses a tank to flood your body with supplemental oxygen. The supplemental oxygen makes it easier to breathe and has a calming effect, but you’re stuck lugging around an oxygen tank.

End-Stage COPD

Very severe or end-stage COPD is the last stage that COPD patients experience. It comes with a list of harmful and potentially life-threatening symptoms. These COPD symptoms include a chronic cough, shortness of breath, low blood oxygen levels, and increasing levels of phlegm. Overall, these COPD symptoms lead to worsening of the condition and results in painful final stages.

Is COPD a fatal disease?

Once people with COPD reach end-stage or the very severe stage, COPD becomes fatal.

What Affects COPD Life Expectancy?

Merely having COPD reduces life expectancy, from about 0.3 years in stage 1 to 5.8 years in stage 3 or 4. Smokers and former smokers have the most significant loss in life expectancy, while people who have never smoked have the least loss.

Once COPD is diagnosed, the main thing affecting life expectancy is a patient’s overall lifestyle. Patients who continue to be exposed to lung-damaging situations may see their prognosis worsen, while those who exercise and avoid toxins may almost completely stop the progression of the disease. Lung-damaging situations include smoking, breathing in other fumes, or even a chest injury.

Stages of COPD Life Expectancy

According to a study in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, life expectancy decreases as COPD worsens. In fact, a very large reduction in life expectancy occurs for former smokers. The study uses a 65-year-old male smoker with COPD to talk about life expectancy. Using the smokers information, researchers identify the reduction in life expectancy for stage 1, 2, and 3 or 4 of COPD.

  • Stage 1: 0.3 years reduction
  • Stage 2: 2.2 years reduction
  • Stage 3 or 4: 5.8 years reduction

COPD Treatment

Doctors treat COPD in several different ways. In the earliest stages, doctors usually focus on lifestyle changes. This means breathing clean air, exercising regularly, and living a healthy life.

When COPD patients progress to Stage 2, they receive more education and are often given a COPD inhaler. Doctors recommend that patients use an inhale once or twice a day. The primary goal here is to slow the progression of COPD as much as possible. While life may not be entirely comfortable at this stage, people are still capable of independent activity.

At Stage 3, doctors usually start providing COPD medication to help chemically control the progression of the disease and mitigate the worst symptoms. This continues into Stage 4, but treatments will become more invasive over time.

Breathing Treatment

At any stage, doctors may suggest an experimental breathing treatment. Whether you decide to accept is up to you, but they may show better results than standard treatments. Alternatively, they may not suggest experimental treatments.

Tests don’t progress to using human subjects unless researchers have good reason to believe they’re effective. Being so, they are experimental for a reason and success does not always occur.

How do you stop the progression of COPD?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD, but there are ways to increase lung function. Some treatments include quitting smoking, increasing daily exercise, avoiding fumes and gases, following a healthy diet, and investing in clean-air equipment can all reduce COPD symptoms.

Quit smoking

If you are a smoker, the number one way to reduce the progression of COPD is to quit smoking. Your doctor can recommend products or services that will help you accomplish that goal.


Patients with COPD might think that exercise will make their shortness of breath worse, but it can be incredibility beneficial to their health. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center actually encourages people with COPD to exercise a minimum of 30 minutes each week. Ideally, folks are able to work their way up to 40 minutes of exercise five times a week. Physical activity promotes lung capacity and slows the progression of COPD.


Just by choosing healthier options, your diet can help reduce the progression of COPD. Antioxidants that are found in fruits and vegetables protect your body’s cells and help you maintain a healthy weight. This way, your lungs won’t have to work nearly as hard to pump oxygen throughout your body.

Lung Irritants

An exacerbation of COPD is fumes and gases that you might accidentally inhale. Lung irritants include fumes, gases, and odors.


Air cleaners are a common type of equipment that you can buy to help stop the progression of COPD. Air cleaners come in individual units for certain rooms or can be used to filter your entire home. They’re simple to use and attach to your heating or air-conditioning system.

Place the air cleaner in a room that you spend the most time in. While it might not be as effective as oxygen therapy, this equipment will reduce lung irritants in the at home. It might also provide you with supplemental oxygen.

COPD Breathing Tips

If you have a COPD diagnosis, there are several things you can do to help breathe better.

First, and most importantly, try to breathe air that’s as clean as possible. This may involve setting up an additional filtration system in your home, wearing a particle mask in public, or even wearing some form of breathing mask during the later stages. COPD’s progress accelerates when additional damage to the lungs occurs, so preventing this is vital.

Next, your doctor may recommend breathing exercises for COPD to help you control your flow of oxygen. Most people don’t learn these strategies right away. It takes time and practice to learn them. Once you do learn, it’s easier to maximize the value of each breath you take.

Finally, you’ll need to learn to manage situations where heavy breathing occurs. Getting adequate exercise is an important part of maintaining your body’s strength, but breathing too hard while you’re not getting enough oxygen isn’t going to help. You may want to follow these tips for exercising with breathing problems.

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