Screening Active Smokers for COPD and Helping them Quit Saves Lives

Half of all people who smoke will develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Helping them quit is the most effective way to treat this debilitating condition.


More than 14 million Americans are diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and another 12 million are living with it undiagnosed, according to estimates from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. COPD is a collective term that encompasses a group of diseases causing air-flow blockage and breathing problems, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It causes symptoms of chronic cough, shortness of breath that is often worse with activity, wheezing, and chest tightness. As the disease progresses, patients often require supplemental oxygen and experience frequent hospitalizations related to worsening of symptoms.

Smoking is the primary cause of COPD and accounts for 8 out of 10 COPD-related deaths. In fact, COPD was the 6th leading cause of death in the US in 2020.

The good news for patients is that quitting smoking can dramatically improve the outcome of COPD. Improvements in COPD symptoms, such as morning cough and shortness of breath, can be seen in as little as two weeks after quitting. Within one year of quitting, patients will experience improvements in lung function. Quitting smoking also helps halt the steep decline in lung function seen in people with COPD who continue to smoke.


Large epidemiological studies show that nearly half of all people who smoke will develop COPD, which is why it is so important to screen those who smoke for COPD. Smoking one pack per day of cigarettes for at least 20 years makes COPD more likely. Screening can be done in less than 10 minutes with simple spirometry testing in a provider's office. It’s also vital to encourage patients with COPD to quit smoking.

For National COPD Awareness Month (November) our team created an educational video on COPD and how to talk with patients about being successful in quitting smoking. Watch the video below for ideas on how to speak with your patients about this important topic.


For more great content on helping patients become tobacco free, check out one of our upcoming trainings from the Duke-UNC Tobacco Treatment Specialist Training Program.


About The Author

Rachael Joyner is a family nurse practitioner with the Duke Smoking Cessation Program. She holds a National Certificate in Tobacco Treatment Practice and received her Doctorate in Nursing Practice from the University of Florida. She loves working collaboratively with patients to help them become tobacco free.