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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.

It includes:

  • 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 obvious 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. It's common to have a few flare-ups a year, particularly during the winter.

Read more about the symptoms of COPD

When to get medical advice

Non-urgent 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.

How COPD is diagnosed

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.

Read more about the causes of COPD

Treatments for COPD

The damage to the lungs caused by COPD is permanent. But treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition.

Treatments include:

  • 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

Read more about how COPD is treated

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.

Read more about living with COPD

Preventing COPD

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.

Get help to quit smoking

Page last reviewed: 15 December 2021
Next review due: 15 December 2024

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 9.