COPD Overview and Practice Questions Illustration

COPD: Overview and Practice Questions (2024)

by | Updated: Jun 4, 2024

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a prevalent and progressive respiratory condition characterized by the persistent obstruction of airflow in the lungs.

Primarily caused by prolonged exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, most often from cigarette smoke, COPD is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide.

This article provides a comprehensive overview of COPD, detailing its causes, symptoms, diagnostic criteria, and available treatment and management strategies, to raise awareness about its global impact and the critical importance of early diagnosis and intervention.

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What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a persistent, obstructive disorder of the lungs characterized by limited airflow and inflammation. It predominantly encompasses two conditions: emphysema, which affects the air sacs in the lungs, and chronic bronchitis, which impacts the airways. Although it is a life-threatening disease, appropriate management can control symptoms and enhance the quality of life.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Vector Illustration


The leading cause of COPD is prolonged exposure to respiratory irritants, particularly:

  • Tobacco Smoke: Main risk factor, including secondhand smoke.
  • Occupational Exposure: Dust, chemicals, and fumes in the workplace.
  • Environmental Factors: Indoor and outdoor pollution.
  • Genetic Factors: Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic condition that increases the risk of COPD.


COPD often develops slowly, with symptoms intensifying over time. Common symptoms include:


Diagnosis is generally based on clinical evaluation, history of exposure to risk factors, and specialized tests such as:

COPD Stages

COPD is categorized into four stages, ranging from mild to very severe, based on symptoms, spirometry results, and the impact on quality of life:

  • Mild (Stage 1): Few symptoms, but a chronic cough may be present.
  • Moderate (Stage 2): Shortness of breath upon exertion and high susceptibility to respiratory infections.
  • Severe (Stage 3): Worsening airflow limitation, increased shortness of breath, and repeated exacerbations.
  • Very Severe (Stage 4): Severe airflow limitation, poor quality of life, and risk of respiratory failure or heart complications.

Management and Treatment

There is no cure for COPD, but treatments and lifestyle modifications can help manage symptoms and slow progression:

  • Medications: Bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and antibiotics can relieve symptoms and prevent exacerbations.
  • Oxygen Therapy: Improves oxygen levels in the blood in severe COPD cases.
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Includes education, exercise training, nutrition advice, and counseling.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Quitting smoking, avoiding irritants, maintaining a healthy diet, and staying physically active.
  • Noninvasive ventilation: CPAP or BiPAP may be indicated during exacerbations.
  • Lung Transplantation: Considered in severe cases, where other treatments have failed.

Note: Severe exacerbations of COPD may require intubation and mechanical ventilation to treat or prevent respiratory failure.


The progression and prognosis of COPD can vary. Early diagnosis and strict adherence to treatment plans can substantially improve the quality of life and slow disease progression.

Without proper management, however, COPD can lead to severe complications, including respiratory infections, heart problems, lung cancer, and respiratory failure.

Preventive Measures

Primary prevention is crucial to curb the development and progression of COPD.

This includes avoiding tobacco smoke, reducing exposure to occupational and environmental irritants, using protective gear when needed, and maintaining good overall lung health through regular exercise and a balanced diet.

Types of COPD

There are two primary types of COPD:

  1. Emphysema
  2. Chronic Bronchitis

Note: While these conditions can occur independently, many people with COPD exhibit characteristics of both.


Emphysema is a condition characterized by damage to the walls of the alveoli, the small air sacs in the lungs responsible for air exchange.

This damage leads to larger, irregular air spaces that impair the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Prolonged exposure to irritants, primarily smoking, is the leading cause of emphysema, although aging and genetic predisposition can also play a role.

Symptoms of emphysema primarily include shortness of breath, reduced exercise tolerance, progressive weight loss, and a barrel-shaped chest due to lung overinflation.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis involves the inflammation and swelling of the bronchial tubes. This inflammation leads to increased mucus production, which can obstruct airflow.

It is clinically diagnosed when a person experiences a productive cough that persists for at least three months a year for two consecutive years.

Smoking is also a significant risk factor for chronic bronchitis, along with exposure to various environmental factors such as air pollution, dust, and toxic gases.

Individuals with chronic bronchitis often experience symptoms like persistent cough with mucus production, shortness of breath, especially during physical activity, frequent respiratory infections, wheezing, and chest tightness.

Note: Many individuals with COPD may exhibit features of both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, a condition often referred to as overlap syndrome. This combination can lead to significant morbidity and requires a comprehensive approach to management to address the multifaceted nature of the disease.

COPD Practice Questions

1. What is the definition of COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease characterized by obstructed airflow from the lungs, leading to symptoms like breathing difficulty, cough, mucus production, and wheezing.

2. What is the most common cause of COPD?

3. Which diseases are considered types of COPD?
Emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis.

4. How is the airflow in patients with COPD?
There is an obstruction and/or limitation that is not completely reversible.

5. What are the general symptoms of COPD?
Dyspnea, cough, sputum, fever, wheezing, chest tightness, and fatigue.

6. What are the differences in the major symptoms between chronic bronchitis and emphysema?
In chronic bronchitis, symptoms consist of excessive sputum production for at least 3 months for a year and twice in a row, while emphysema’s symptoms consist of the destruction of the gas exchange surfaces.

7. What are the two primary ways to diagnose COPD?
Clinical assessment/history, and by using a spirometer to measure volumes, capacities, and flow.

8. What are the secondary ways to diagnose COPD?
Laboratory values, electrocardiogram (EKG), arterial blood gas (ABG), and chest x-ray.

9. What are the main interventions for managing COPD?
Removing irritants, pharmacology agents, pulmonary rehabilitation, and surgical options in severe cases.

10. What are the main goals of drugs used in COPD management?
They are designed to improve symptoms and improve the patient’s quality of life.

11. What medications are used in the management of COPD?
Racemic epinephrine, Albuterol/Proventil (ventilin), Levalbuterol (xopenex), Salmeterol, Formoterol, Arformoterol (brovana), Ipratropium (atrovent), Tiotropium (sprivia), Budesonide (pulimcort), Mometasone (asmanex), Fluticasone (Flovent), Beclomethasone (QVAR), Acetylcysteine (mucomyst), and Dornase alpha (rhDNAse), and Nedocromil (tilade).

12. What is the preferred long-term steroid administration route?
Inhaled administration route because they don’t have the side effects of systemic steroids.

13. When is it appropriate to use systemic steroids?
It’s appropriate to use systemic steroids when nothing else works.

14. What are the three causes of chronic bronchitis?
Smoking, recurring pulmonary infections, and air pollution.

15. What changes in breath sounds occur in the early stages of chronic bronchitis?
No significant changes occur.

16. What will an arterial blood gas (ABG) show for a patient in the early stages of chronic bronchitis?
It may show slight respiratory alkalosis with mild hypoxemia.

17. What breath sounds will you find in the advanced stages of chronic bronchitis?
Crackles with wet secretions and wheezes.

18. What will an arterial blood gas (ABG) show for a patient in the advanced stages of chronic bronchitis?
Compensated respiratory acidosis

19. What is the difference between COPD and asthma?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is not reversible, but asthma is.

20. What is the main risk factor for COPD?

21. What is hypercapnia?
Above normal PaCO2

22. When should a hospice referral be made for a COPD patient?
When the disease enters Stage III-IV.

23. What is the most common test in diagnosing and monitoring COPD?

24. What is the best care approach suited for patients with COPD?
Palliative care and home health

25. What triggers an exacerbation of COPD?
Infection, pollution, and cold weather.

26. When can an advance directive become effective in a patient with COPD?
When the patient’s condition is determined to be non-reversible with no hope of recovery, and the patient is no longer able to speak for their own wishes. It must be signed by two doctors.

27. What contributes most to COPD?
The number of pack-years that a patient has smoked.

28. What is a characteristic of COPD?
Abnormal inflammation

29. How many times is a smoker more likely to die from COPD than a non-smoker?
10 times more likely

30. What are bronchodilators?
Medication that relaxes the smooth muscles of the airways and makes breathing easier.

31. What heart problem is caused by COPD?
Cor pulmonale

32. What nail finding is commonly seen with COPD?
Digital clubbing

33. What type of COPD is referred to as a “pink puffer”?

34. What type of COPD is referred to as a “blue bloater”?
Chronic bronchitis

35. What type of COPD presents more commonly with a cough and sputum?
Chronic bronchitis

36. What type of COPD will patients complain the most about dyspnea?

37. What type of COPD is more common in adults aged 30-40?
Chronic bronchitis

38. What type of COPD produces peripheral edema?
Chronic bronchitis

39. What type of COPD has “quiet” breath sounds without adventitious sounds on auscultation?

40. What are the characteristics of chronic bronchitis?
Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a productive cough that lasts at least three months with recurring bouts occurring for at least two consecutive years, copious amounts of mucus production, airway obstruction due to bronchial inflammation, and destruction of the pulmonary acini.

41. Which is more prevalent, asthma or COPD?
Asthma is more prevalent but COPD is more deadly.

42. What are the physical findings of COPD?
Barrel chest, cyanosis, increased resting respiratory rate, shallow breathing, and pursed lips during respiration.

43. What are the three primary symptoms of COPD?
Cough, sputum production, and dyspnea on exertion.

44. What are the potential complications of COPD?
Polycythemia, infection, atelectasis, pneumonia, pulmonary hypertension, and respiratory failure. 

45. Who should undergo spirometry testing to detect COPD?
Smokers or ex-smokers who are at least 40 years of age with symptoms.

46. What are the available treatment methods for COPD?
Smoking cessation, oxygen therapy, pharmacological therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation.

47. Is COPD treatable?
Yes, COPD is treatable.

48. Is COPD preventable?
Yes, COPD is preventable.

49. Is COPD more deadly in men or women?

50. What is alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency?
A genetic disorder characterized by lower-than-normal levels of AAT protein, leading to an increased risk of lung and liver disease due to the uncontrolled activity of enzymes that can damage the lung tissue and cause liver abnormalities. It’s a risk factor for COPD.

Related: COPD Case Study: Patient Diagnosis and Treatment


What Does COPD Stand for?

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

What is the Medical Definition of COPD?

COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. It encompasses two main conditions – emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema is a condition in which the alveoli (tiny air sacs) at the ends of the airways are destroyed. Chronic bronchitis is inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the alveoli.

Common symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent cough with mucus, chest tightness, and wheezing.

What is an Acute Exacerbation of COPD?

An acute exacerbation of COPD refers to a sudden worsening of COPD symptoms. This is often triggered by an infection, such as the common cold, or by environmental factors like air pollution.

During an exacerbation, patients may experience increased breathlessness, wheezing, coughing, increased sputum production, and changes in the color or consistency of the sputum. Exacerbations can be life-threatening and often lead to hospitalizations.

What are the 4 Stages of COPD?

The stages of COPD are categorized by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) based on the severity of airflow limitation, and they are:

  • Stage 1 (Mild COPD): Mild airflow limitation with a forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) ≥ 80% of the predicted value. Symptoms might be mild and may not be noticed by the patient.
  • Stage 2 (Moderate COPD): Worsening airflow limitation with FEV1 between 50% and 79% of the predicted value. This is the stage at which patients usually seek medical attention due to chronic cough and shortness of breath.
  • Stage 3 (Severe COPD): Further worsening of airflow limitation with FEV1 between 30% and 49% of the predicted value. Shortness of breath becomes more pronounced and activities become more limited.
  • Stage 4 (Very Severe COPD): Very severe airflow limitation with FEV1 less than 30% of the predicted value or the presence of chronic respiratory failure. This stage can be life-threatening and requires intensive medical care.

How Fast Does COPD Progress?

The progression of COPD varies widely among individuals and depends on various factors, including the individual’s overall health, whether they continue to smoke, exposure to lung irritants, access to medical care, and adherence to treatment.

For some, the disease progresses slowly over many years, while for others, it can deteriorate more rapidly. Early detection and appropriate management can help slow down the progression of the disease.

What is the Normal Oxygen Level for Someone with COPD?

In healthy individuals, the normal oxygen saturation level (SpO2) typically ranges from 95% to 100%. For people with COPD, oxygen saturation levels might be lower due to impaired lung function.

While individual targets can vary based on the severity of the disease and other health conditions, many COPD patients might have SpO2 levels between 88% and 92%.

Note: It’s crucial for each patient to follow their healthcare provider’s advice on target oxygen levels.

What is the Best Oxygen Flow Rate for a Person with COPD?

The optimal oxygen flow rate for a person with COPD depends on their specific needs, the severity of their disease, and the method of oxygen delivery (e.g., nasal cannula, face mask).

A common range might be 1-3 liters per minute (LPM) for rest and up to 4-6 LPM for activity, but this can vary widely.

Long-term oxygen therapy should be prescribed by a physician based on regular assessments of the patient’s blood oxygen levels and overall health.

What is the Normal Heart Rate for a COPD Patient?

The normal resting heart rate for a healthy adult ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). COPD patients may have a higher resting heart rate due to reduced oxygen levels and the heart working harder to deliver oxygen to the body.

It’s not uncommon for COPD patients to have a resting heart rate in the upper end of the normal range or even slightly above 100 bpm.

However, a significantly increased heart rate, especially if associated with other symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain, requires medical attention.

Why Do COPD Patients Have Lower Oxygen Saturations?

COPD patients often have lower oxygen saturations because of compromised lung function.

The destruction and narrowing of the airways and air sacs limit the amount of air that reaches the alveoli, where oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide.

This means that less oxygen is available to be transferred into the bloodstream, leading to lower oxygen saturation levels.

What Can Trigger a COPD Attack?

Several factors can trigger exacerbations or attacks in COPD patients, including:

  • Respiratory infections: Such as colds, the flu, or pneumonia.
  • Environmental factors: Including air pollution, dust, and changes in weather.
  • Allergens: Such as pollen, mold, or pet dander.
  • Tobacco smoke: Continuing to smoke or exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Strong odors: Like perfume or cleaning products.
  • Physical exertion: Especially without proper pacing or in extreme temperatures.
  • Certain medications: Including some types of beta-blockers or sedatives.
  • GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease): Stomach acid flowing back into the throat can irritate airways.

Why is COPD Worse at Night?

Several reasons might contribute to the worsening of COPD symptoms at night:

  • Positional changes: Lying down can increase the pressure on the lungs, making it harder to breathe.
  • Reclining: This can cause mucus to pool in the airways, leading to increased coughing.
  • Reduced Corticosteroid Levels: The body’s natural production of anti-inflammatory corticosteroids dips during the night, potentially worsening inflammation in the lungs.
  • GERD: Lying down can exacerbate acid reflux, which can irritate the airways.

What is the Best Climate for COPD?

A mild, non-extreme climate is generally best for individuals with COPD. Ideal conditions would be:

  • Low humidity: High humidity can make the air feel heavier and harder to breathe.
  • Moderate temperatures: Extreme cold can constrict airways, while extreme heat can exacerbate breathlessness.
  • Clean air: Areas with low pollution and pollen counts are preferable.
  • Low altitude: Higher altitudes mean less oxygen in the air, which can be challenging for COPD patients.

Note: Individual preferences and tolerances vary, so what’s best for one person might not be for another.

When to Go to Hospital for COPD?

COPD patients should seek emergency medical attention if they experience:

  • A sudden and severe shortness of breath that is not alleviated with their usual medications
  • Change in the color or consistency of mucus, especially if it turns green or contains blood
  • Increased swelling in the ankles or legs
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Confusion or dizziness
  • High fever
  • Persistent and increased wheezing

Note: Any significant worsening of symptoms or anything that feels “not right” should prompt a consultation with a healthcare provider.

Final Thoughts

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a prevalent and debilitating lung condition characterized by restricted airflow and inflammation, primarily due to exposure to respiratory irritants.

Early diagnosis and a comprehensive management plan involving medications, lifestyle modifications, and preventive measures can mitigate symptoms, enhance quality of life, and slow the progression of the disease.

Public awareness about the risk factors and the importance of early intervention can significantly contribute to reducing the global burden of COPD.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


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