There are many myths and misconceptions about COPD, such as only those who smoke can get it. Knowing the realities of the condition can help you separate fact from fiction.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to certain health conditions that limit airflow in your lungs. These conditions include chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Many people with COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

COPD may cause symptoms such as:

  • difficulty breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • excess mucus, phlegm, or sputum
  • fatigue

Many people have misconceptions about COPD that are not supported by the latest science.

Read on to get the facts behind common COPD myths.

Fact: According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 6% of adults in the United States were living with a diagnosis of COPD in 2022.

That means that millions of adults across the country have received a diagnosis of COPD.

The actual proportion of adults with COPD may be higher since many people with this condition face delays in getting a diagnosis and don’t realize they have it.

Fact: Although smoking is a leading cause of COPD, people who have never smoked can also develop it.

Risk factors for COPD include:

  • current or past smoking
  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • exposure to other air pollutants
  • respiratory infections
  • certain genetic mutations

A 2023 study found that using e-cigarettes or other vaping products may also increase the risk of COPD.

You don’t need to have every risk factor to develop COPD.

Fact: Although COPD is more common in adults ages 65 years or older, younger people can also develop this condition.

A 2023 study found that COPD affected more than 1.6% of adults ages 20–50 years in the United States. Adults ages 35–50 years in this study had a higher risk of COPD than those under the age of 35 years.

A history of smoking or secondhand smoke exposure significantly increases the risk of COPD in young adults.

Fact: The CDC reports that more women than men are living with COPD in the United States.

More women than men have also died from COPD since 2000 in the United States.

Although exposure to tobacco smoke and other pollutants raises the risk of COPD for people of any gender, women may experience more harmful effects than men from these pollutants.

Women with COPD also tend to get a diagnosis later than men, after the disease has progressed and treatment is less effective. This may contribute to reduced survival in women with COPD.

Fact: COPD treatments are available to help limit symptoms and potentially slow the progression of COPD.

Your treatment plan may include one or more of the following:

  • lifestyle changes to limit exposure to tobacco smoke and other air pollutants
  • vaccinations and other strategies to manage the risk of lung infections
  • medication to treat symptoms
  • pulmonary rehabilitation
  • supplemental oxygen
  • lung transplant
  • surgery

Talk with your doctor to learn more about your treatment options.

Fact: Avoiding tobacco smoke is one of the most important things you can do to manage COPD.

If you smoke, cutting back and quitting may help limit symptoms and slow the progression of COPD.

Although more research is necessary, it may also be helpful to avoid e-cigarettes and other vaping products. According to a 2022 review, some studies have found that people with COPD report fewer symptoms or flares when they switch from smoking to vaping, but other studies haven’t found these benefits.

Avoiding smoking and vaping altogether is likely your healthiest option.

Talk with your doctor to learn about smoking cessation counseling, medication, or other resources that can help you cut back and quit smoking or vaping.

Fact: Different people with COPD may benefit from different treatment plans, which don’t always include supplemental oxygen therapy.

Supplemental oxygen therapy provides oxygen through a face mask, nasal prongs, or oxygen cannula.

The potential benefits of long-term supplemental oxygen therapy may depend on whether or not you have severe resting hypoxemia (very low blood oxygen levels when you’re at rest).

The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease reported in 2024 that long-term supplemental oxygen therapy helps improve survival in people with chronic respiratory failure and severe resting hypoxemia, but it doesn’t provide the same benefits for those with moderate arterial oxygen desaturation while at rest or exercising.

This means if you don’t have severe resting hypoxemia, the benefits of long-term supplemental oxygen therapy may not outweigh the risks or downsides. Your doctor will consider other aspects of your condition when deciding whether or not to recommend this treatment.

Some people with COPD who don’t need long-term oxygen therapy may still benefit from short-term oxygen therapy during a respiratory infection or flare of COPD.

Talk with your doctor to learn more about the potential benefits, risks, and costs of oxygen therapy.

Fact: Although dietary changes won’t cure COPD, adjusting your diet or eating habits may help you meet your nutritional needs and support your overall health and well-being.

It takes more energy than usual to breathe when you have COPD, which means you may need more calories than someone without the condition.

You might find it challenging to prepare or eat enough nutrient-rich food, especially if your ability to complete these tasks is limited by symptoms such as shortness of breath or fatigue.

Let your doctor know if you’re finding it difficult to eat or meet your nutritional needs. They may recommend changes to your diet or eating habits or refer you to a registered dietitian for support.

Your doctor or dietitian also may recommend certain nutritional supplements.

Millions of people in the United States live with COPD, many of whom may not realize they have it.

The condition can affect adults of any age, gender, race, or ethnicity.

A history of smoking increases the risk of COPD, but not all people with this condition have smoked before.

It’s important to talk with your doctor if you’re having difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or other respiratory symptoms. They can help you learn whether COPD or another condition is causing the symptoms.

If you receive a diagnosis of COPD, your doctor may recommend medication, pulmonary rehabilitation, or other treatments for COPD. This sometimes includes short- or long-term supplemental oxygen therapy.

If you smoke, taking steps to cut back and quit is also important for managing COPD.

Talk with your doctor to learn more about COPD and how to manage it.