Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disorder characterized by shortness of breath, cough and wheezing. It includes two well-known lung diseases: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

People with COPD have difficulty getting the air out of their lungs, and this makes it difficult to take in healthy new air. Like many diseases, there are many misconceptions associated with COPD that are frankly untrue. We’ve debunked the top seven myths about COPD. 

1. Only smokers get COPD

Did you know 10 to 20 percent of those diagnosed with COPD have never smoked? While the number one cause of COPD is long-term cigarette smoking, there are many factors that can put us at risk for developing COPD. Factors like age, exposure to indoor air pollution, secondhand smoke, excessive childhood respiratory infections, untreated asthma and exposure to workplace dusts and chemicals like silica, coal and dust can irritate the lungs and increase risk for developing COPD. Genetics can also be a risk factor. At least one genetic disorder, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, is known to cause the disease. Researchers believe that the presence or absence of certain genetic factors may explain why some smokers get COPD while others do not.

2. COPD is a rare disease

If you have COPD, you are not alone. More than 15 million Americans have COPD, with many millions more remaining undiagnosed. COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Since 2000, COPD has claimed the lives of more women than men, showing COPD is no longer a “man’s disease,” as it was once considered.

3. “This is just smoker’s cough.”

Smoker’s cough is a myth in itself. In fact, there is no such thing. While everyone experiences coughs from time to time, one that lingers may be a symptom of COPD. If an individual is experiencing a frequent cough, sputum or phlegm that lasts at least three months a year, for two consecutive years, the airways are likely irritated. This may be a sign of chronic bronchitis. Coughs that regularly bring up mucus are also considered to be a sign or symptom of COPD.

4. “Stopping now won’t make any difference.”

It’s tough to break a habit that you’ve had for many years, even if it interferes with your health. However, when you stop smoking, there are two major benefits you achieve to counter COPD: you dramatically reduce your risk for a heart attack, and you increase your life expectancy. It is never too late to stop smoking and improve your health. Your health care provider can help.

5. COPD only happens to old people

COPD can occur at any age. Many believe that because COPD takes years to develop and older people have a greater chance of having COPD than young people; however, that does not mean only older individuals develop COPD. While most people with the disease contract it in their 60s or later, it can occur as early as 40, and even younger, in some cases.

6. There is no treatment for COPD

COPD cannot be cured, but proper treatment can help control the disease and its symptoms, making it easier for you to breathe and enjoy life. COPD is a progressive disease, which means that it can get worse over time. You can work with your health care provider to learn ways to improve your breathing and fitness and prevent rapid and serious worsening of your disease. It is possible to live well with COPD.

7. Getting started with oxygen therapy is a death sentence

Oxygen therapy is a beneficial tool that can help to extend your life. Many patients with COPD live 10 years and more while on oxygen therapy. Thanks to the latest lightweight and portable oxygen concentrators, mobility of individuals is no longer limited, allowing more outdoor activities and a better quality of life.