What Are COPD and Emphysema?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a condition that causes a progressive shortening of the breath. Many people who have COPD also have emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

COPD causes excessive mucus and inflammation of the airways of the lungs as well as destruction of the tiny air sacs over time. These abnormalities cause a narrowing of airways and difficult breathing, especially exhaling fully.

Causes of COPD

According to the American Lung Association, COPD is now the third leading cause of death in the United States. This chronic condition develops primarily due to:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Passive exposure/second-hand cigarette smoke
  • Exposure to respiratory irritants in the work place

Symptoms of COPD

A chronic cough and excessive mucus production are symptoms of COPD that occur especially if you smoke.

Additional symptoms include:

  • Frequent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing


Emphysema, which is a common form of COPD, is a chronic lung condition in which the tiny air sacs that normally expand and contract as you breathe are destroyed making it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs.

Emphysema is primarily caused by:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Inhalation of toxins or other irritants
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic defect that can cause emphysema at an early age.

Screening & Diagnosis

The pulmonologists at Mount Sinai are highly skilled in the screening and diagnosis of COPD and emphysema,  and they are nationally recognized experts in alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

To make a diagnosis, your doctor will perform simple non-invasive tests, which may include:

  • Chest X-ray which can detect lung infection
  • CT scan which allows for a more detailed view of the structure of the lungs
  • Blood tests which assess the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
  • Pulmonary function tests (PFT) which asses lung function and capacity