Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.
- emphysema – damage to the air sacs in the lungs
- chronic bronchitis – long-term inflammation of the airways
COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke or used to smoke. Most people with COPD do not have any noticeable symptoms until they reach their late 40s or 50s.
Symptoms of COPD
Common symptoms of COPD include:
- increasing shortness of breath - can wake you up during the night or happen when you start exercise
- a persistent chesty cough with phlegm that never seems to go away
- frequent chest infections
- persistent wheezing
The symptoms will usually get worse over time and make daily activities difficult to do. Treatment can help slow the progression.
Sometimes your symptoms may suddenly get worse. This is known as a flare-up or exacerbation. It's common to have a few flare-ups a year, particularly during the winter.
When to get medical advice
Talk to your GP if you have persistent symptoms of COPD, particularly if you're over 35 and smoke or you used to smoke.
There are several conditions that cause similar symptoms. These could be asthma, bronchiectasis, anaemia and heart failure. A breathing test can help find out if you have COPD.
There's currently no cure for COPD. But the sooner treatment begins, the less chance there is of severe lung damage.
Causes of COPD
COPD happens when the airways become inflamed, damaged and narrowed. The main cause is smoking or passive smoking (breathing in other people's tobacco smoke). COPD can sometimes affect people who have never smoked.
The chances of developing COPD increase the more you smoke and the longer you've smoked.
Treatments for COPD
The damage to the lungs caused by COPD is permanent. But treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition.
- stopping smoking – if you have COPD and you smoke, stopping smoking is the most important thing you can do
- inhalers and medicines – to help make breathing easier
- pulmonary rehabilitation – a specialised programme of exercise and education
Outlook for COPD
The outlook for COPD varies from person to person. The condition cannot be cured or reversed. For many people, treatment can help keep it under control. This means that COPD may not limit your daily activities.
But in some people, COPD may continue to get worse despite treatment. It can have a significant impact on your quality of life. It can also lead to life-threatening problems.
COPD is a preventable condition. You can reduce your chances of developing it if you avoid smoking.
Stopping smoking can help stop further damage to your lungs.