What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of conditions, where people have difficulty breathing due to long-term damage to the lungs.

COPD includes:

  • chronic bronchitis (an inflammation of the ‘bronchi’, or airways of the lungs)
  • emphysema (damage to the smaller airways and air sacs of the lungs).

Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema restrict airflow in and out of the lungs due to a narrowing of the airways.

An estimated three million people suffer from COPD in the UK, but two-thirds of them have not yet been diagnosed (source: British Lung Foundation, accessed Feb 2019). This is due to a tendency for people to dismiss the symptoms as a ‘smoker’s cough’ and not to seek medical help.

Causes of COPD

Smoking is the main cause of COPD due to the long-term damage it causes to the lung’s airways. Tobacco smoke irritates the airways and destroys the lung’s stretchy fibres. The risk of COPD increases the more a person smokes and the longer they continue the habit.

However, up to 20 per cent of people with COPD have been affected by non-smoking-related causes.

COPD can also be caused by air pollution, fumes, dust or inherited disorders – although this is rare.

Symptoms of COPD

Symptoms include:

  • increasing breathlessness when exercising or exerting yourself
  • a persistent cough with phlegm
  • frequent chest infections, particularly in winter
  • wheezing.

It can take years for lung damage to start causing symptoms, so most people who are diagnosed with the condition are over 60.

Diagnosing COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is usually diagnosed via a combination of tests. Your doctor will take a medical history to determine environmental or lifestyle factors that could increase your risk of COPD.

To diagnose COPD, they may also perform:

  • a physical examination
  • chest x-ray
  • breathing tests such as a spirometry.

Treatment for COPD

Treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can help control symptoms, minimise complications and help you to lead an active life.

If you smoke, the first step is to stop smoking. Your doctor can provide you with nicotine replacement products and medication to help reduce cravings.

Treatment of COPD typically involves a range of medications, oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation. Some people with severe forms of emphysema may also require lung volume reduction surgery or even a lung transplant.