Diseases & Conditions
COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
COPD is very common
Some 600,000 people in the UK are known to have COPD and it is the sixth most common cause of death in England and Wales, killing more than 30,000 people a year.
Despite this, many people are still unaware of this lung disease.
What is COPD?
COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is a term that covers a number of lung conditions including chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the airways) and emphysema (damaged air sacs).
As the name suggests, the main problem is airway obstruction. In COPD, the lung airways are damaged and narrowed, which makes it harder for air to get in and out.
What causes it?
COPD is generally a smokers' disease. The lung damaged caused by smoking increases with duration of smoking.
Most people who develop COPD have been a smoker for many years and are aged 40 or older.
Air pollution and certain occupations, such as coal mining, may also play a part, but it is rare for a non-smoker to develop COPD.
What are the symptoms?
Cough (sometimes called a "smoker's cough"), phlegm/sputum production and shortness of breath.
In mild cases, these symptoms may only appear occasionally - in the winter for example.
As the disease progresses the symptoms become much worse.
A person with severe COPD may become so breathless that they are no longer able to carry out normal daily activities such as walking.
What is the outlook?
There is no cure for COPD. Once the damage is done to the lungs it cannot be reversed.
Stopping smoking will greatly help improve the symptoms and stop the disease from progressing further.
It is never too late to stop smoking and it will benefit even those with advanced COPD.
Keeping fit and healthy by taking regular exercise and maintaining a health weight can also help.
People with chronic lung diseases are also advised to have an annual flu jab.
Severe COPD is extremely debilitating. As the lungs become more damaged, too little oxygen gets into the bloodstream and this lead to other health problems such as heart failure.
There are therapies that can help at all stages of the disease.
How can it be treated?
Bronchodilator medications, usually given via an inhaler, help open up the airways and make it easier for the person to breathe.
People with COPD often have flare-ups of their condition.
When this happens, or as the disease becomes more severe, steroid medication may be required to help reduce the airway inflammation.
Some may require hospitalisation and intensive treatment with oxygen and antibiotics if they develop a chest infection, for example.
Other medicines, called mucolytics, make the sputum less thick and easier to cough up.
When COPD is severe, portable oxygen may need to be used every day to help with the breathlessness.
Various cylinders are available and they can be used in the home for the long term.
Breathing exercise lessons, or pulmonary rehabilitation, are available at some hospitals.
These teach a person how to improve their exercise performance to maintain quality of life.