How common is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) develops over many years (sometimes 10 to 30 years) and is most commonly diagnosed in people older than 60. Because of this, COPD generally is considered a disease of older adults. COPD is sometimes called chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD) or chronic airflow obstruction (CAO).

In the United States:1

  • About 10 million people have been diagnosed with some form of COPD, and as many as 24 million more may be undiagnosed.
  • COPD is the fourth most common cause of death.

COPD is also a major cause of disability and death worldwide.1 The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, COPD will become the third most common cause of death worldwide.2

The disease is more common in:

  • Smokers. Most people with COPD have a history of significant cigarette use.1
  • Older adults than younger people.

Men and women are affected equally. Some studies suggest that women are more susceptible to the effects of tobacco smoke than men.3 This may be a concern, given that COPD symptoms develop in at least 10% to 15% of long-term smokers, and some studies indicate that up to 50% of long-term smokers older than age 45 develop COPD.4


  1. Senior RM, Silverman EK (2007). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, section 14, chap. 22. New York: WebMD.
  2. Calverley PW (2003). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lancet, 362: 1053–1061.
  3. Pauwels RA, et al. (2001). Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: NHLBI workshop summary. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 163(5): 1256–1276.
  4. Lundbäck B, et al. (2003). Not 15 but 50% of smokers develop COPD?—Report from the Obstructive Lung Disease in Northern Sweden Studies. Respiratory Medicine, 97(2): 115–122.

Last Updated: May 8, 2008

Author: Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS & Cynthia Tank

Medical Review: Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine & Ken Y. Yoneda, MD - Pulmonology

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