About COPD

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a group of diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma. It is characterized by airflow limitation and persistent respiratory symptoms including shortness of breath, coughing up mucus (phlegm), fatigue and frequent respiratory symptom flare-ups called exacerbations.

COPD is not fully reversible and tends to worsen over time. COPD casts an appalling spectre over the lives of people living with the disease, significantly affecting their autonomy and health-related quality of life.

In recent years, COPD has climbed from fifth, to fourth, and will soon take third place as a leading cause of death in Canada. Worse, COPD can help other deadly diseases take hold, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. If already rooted, COPD will accelerate their development.

COPD Characteristics

COPD includes two major breathing diseases that have more resonance in the public domain:

Chronic Bronchitis

The chronic bronchitis part of COPD makes your airways inflamed, i.e., red, swollen and irritated. The damage to the airways and the glands in your airways which make extra mucus (phlegm), narrows the airways in which air passes through. This makes you cough, spit up mucus, and feel short of breath.


In the emphysema part of COPD, inflammation in the lung tissue damages the tiny air sacs (alveoli) at the tips of your airways. Normally these air sacs are stretchy, like balloons – they stretch out as you breathe in and shrink as you breathe out. But with emphysema, they can’t stretch anymore, so air gets trapped inside them. This makes it hard for you to take in air and it makes you feel short of breath.


  • In Canada, 2 million people are living with COPD, a major cause of disability and one of the leading causes of death.


  • COPD is the only chronic disease with increasing mortality.


  • COPD is the #1 cause of hospital admission and re-admission among major chronic illnesses in the country.


Smoking cigarettes is the main cause of COPD in 80 – 90 % of cases.

Other things that may predispose individuals to COPD are:

  • A rare genetic disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
  • Second-hand smoke
  • Air pollution (dust or chemicals)
  • Having repeated lung infections as a child


leading cause of death


cause of hospitalization
in Canada


in direct and indirect
costs annually in Canada

Why more research is needed?

Research is essential for understanding the causes of a disease, and the factors that influence the disease evolution and on which we can intervene. It also allows us to determine the ways we can improve the treatments and the way the health care system can optimize service delivery.
Cohort studies such as CanCOLD are an effective research tool to advance  our knowledge of chronic diseases such as COPD. By following and collecting data on a group of individuals over a period of many years, cohort studies allow researchers to:

Establish links between risk factors and diseases

Gain a better understanding of disease development and progression

Better characterize individuals at-risk for a disease and identify those with early disease

Translate research findings into health interventions, policies and new therapeutics

For COPD, such advances are possible thanks to the Canadian Cohort Obstructive Lung Disease (CanCOLD).

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