Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD, refers to a group of lung conditions that result in poor lung function due to a narrowing of your airways. The two main conditions are bronchitis and emphysema, and the main cause of both is related to smoking, making COPD therefore a largely preventable disease.

Chronic – means it is long-term
Obstructive – refers to the narrowing of the airways, making breathing more difficult on the exhale
Pulmonary – means it affects your lungs
Disease – COPD is a medical condition

Facts about COPD

  • An estimated 1.2 million people are living in the UK with COPD
  • This has increased considerably since 2011, estimating that 835,000 were living with the condition
  • COPD is most common if you are over 35 years of age and are a smoker, or have smoked
  • This makes COPD the second most common lung condition – asthma being the first
  • The main cause is smoking, although it can affect people that don’t, or have never smoked
  • Approximately 90% of individuals that get COPD do, or did, smoke
  • COPD does tend to run in families, so your risk may be higher if your parents also had chest conditions
  • A genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, can increase the risk to develop COPD at a young age
  • The damage caused to your lungs is irreversible, so early diagnosis is essential
  • There is no cure for COPD but there are treatment options to help manage your symptoms

Symptoms of COPD

Sometimes the symptoms of COPD are mistaken for just a “smokers cough” but this is not the case. This is why diagnosis is vital in order to prevent your symptoms getting worse. Also, following diagnosis you can seek the right treatment to help you to manage your symptoms better.

Common symptoms of COPD include:

  • Breathlessness, in general when doing daily tasks and more when active
  • A chesty cough that persists, usually with phlegm
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Wheezing persistently, particularly in cold weather
  • Producing more phlegm, or sputum, than normal

Other symptoms of severe COPD may include losing your appetite, leading to weight loss and tiredness. Also, your ankles may become swollen from a build up of fluids.

If you cough up blood this could be a symptom of severe COPD, although often this is linked to severe chest infections, or possibly lung cancer. Ruling out other conditions is part of the diagnosis process.

Symptoms may come and go, although often with COPD, symptoms are usually persistent. They may get worse with weather, infection or when breathing in smoke or heavy fumes.

Without treatment, symptoms typically get worse. Flare-ups, or exacerbations, may occur too, when symptoms all of a sudden become severe and then subside.

What causes COPD?

COPD is the result of long-term damage to your lungs, causing them to be inflamed, damaged and ultimately narrow. The lining of your airways is made from muscle and elastic tissue, which becomes floppy if you are suffering with COPD, so there is less “pull” on the airway to keep it open.

Narrow airways makes it more difficult for you to breathe air in and out of your lungs, which directly results on the amount of oxygen you can take-in, and carbon dioxide you can expel.

The two most common types of COPD are:

  • Bronchitis – here, the airways are always inflamed and narrowed. The lungs produce phlegm or sputum.
  • Emphysema – here, the air sacs in your lungs become damaged and baggy. Holes appear which trap air and impair breathing.

Common substances that cause COPD

Breathing in harmful substances are the cause of damage, including:

  • Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke – the most common cause of COPD
  • Also, second hand smoke, known as passive smoking
  • Dust
  • Fumes
  • Chemicals
  • Air pollution

However, some of us are higher risk, including:

  • If you have a family history of COPD or chest infections
  • If you have a rare genetic condition, alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, where the lungs are more prone to damage

The longer you have been exposed to these harmful substances, through work or lifestyle choices, the more damage is likely to be caused.

Although not all smokers will get COPD, about 90% will be smokers, or former smokers.

A specialist consultation gives your health the attention it deserves.

Diagnosing and treating COPD

Diagnosing COPD is the first step to managing your symptoms with effective treatment.

A consultation with a specialist respiratory physician will discuss your family medical history and also carry out various tests to help confirm diagnosis.

Tests for COPD are used to assess:

  • The overall functioning of your lungs
  • The frequency of your symptom flare-ups, or infections
  • The shortness of your breath when doing regular activities
  • Your oxygen levels

Some tests that are used to diagnose COPD include:

  • Spirometry test
    • This involves you blowing into a machine to measure your lung capacity
    • It also measures how quickly you can empty your lungs – known as the forced expiratory volume in one second, FEV1
      Blood tests
  • Chest X-rays – to rule out other conditions.
  • BMI tests – to assess if you are a healthy weight for your height, as this will help you to manage COPD symptoms if you are not under or overweight.

The damage to your lungs is permanent, however lifestyle choices and treatment can prevent the condition from worsening.

Treatments for COPD include:

  • Quitting smoking – this is essential if you are diagnosed with COPD and continue to smoke
  • Seek specialist help – regular checkups are important with COPD
  • Inhalers – to ease breathing
  • Medications – to also help make breathing easier
  • Oxygen treatment – may be used if you have low oxygen levels
  • Non-invasive ventilation – may be used to assist you breathing
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation – exercise and education around your lung health
  • Lung volume reduction surgery – maybe used if you have emphysema to remove the damaged part of the lungs, enabling the healthier part to function better.
  • Surgery – a lung transplant is an option, although only for a very small proportion of sufferers

Seek the right help to feel your best

To feel our best is ultimately everyone’s goal in life.

Often it is only when a condition arises, leaving us feeling unwell, that it becomes clear as to the value of our health.

Expert help is available to help you to better understand, manage and improve symptoms related to your respiratory health.

A specialist consultation gives your health the attention it deserves.