What is COPD?

Chronic-Obstructive Pulmonary Disease - what does it mean?


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD, is a long term condition that affects the lungs and causes breathing problems. It tends to affect adults over the age of 35, particularly smokers and can go undiagnosed for a long time.


What are the symptoms of COPD?

The most common symptoms to watch out for are:

  • Breathlessness, especially during exercise

  • Wheezing

  • Frequent chest infections

  • Chesty cough with phlegm (often known as a smoker’s cough)

The symptoms tend to gradually get worse so it’s important to see your GP if you have been experiencing any of these signs.

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What causes COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an umbrella term for two conditions that are caused by damage to the lungs. These are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema occurs due to damage to the air sacs that form the lining of the lungs. In the latter, the airways are inflamed over a long period of time. Both of these conditions result in breathing problems. Put simply, damaged, inflamed or narrowed lungs can result in COPD.

Smoking is the main cause of COPD but it can also occur after being exposed to high levels of dust or strong chemicals over a long period of time. There are also rare genetic factors that can result in the lungs being more susceptible to damage.


Is there a cure for COPD?

There is no cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. While you cannot reverse lung damage there are a number of treatments that ease your symptoms and help to prevent your lungs from getting worse.

Your doctor will assess your symptoms and the condition of your lungs and issue you with an inhaler to help you breathe easier. If that doesn’t provide enough relief you may also be prescribed with medication in tablet form. Pulmonary rehabilitation is also available as a six week programme to learn exercises and educational advice about your condition. Quitting smoking is also a vital step in managing your COPD.


How is COPD diagnosed?

Your doctor will discuss your symptoms with you and ask about your smoking and family history. They will use a stethoscope to assess your breathing and calculate your body mass index. You’ll also be given some breathing tests to do which test the functioning of your lungs. It’s possible that you’ll also have a chest x-ray and blood test to rule out other possible conditions and give you an accurate diagnosis.


How is COPD different from asthma?

It can be easy to confuse the two as they have similar symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. However, they differ in several key ways. Asthma is a respiratory condition where the airways become inflamed, whereas COPD is associated with lung damage. Asthma is often diagnosed in children but can affect all ages, whereas COPD commonly occurs in adults over the age of 35 and has a strong link to smoking.


How to manage COPD

It can be distressing to be given a diagnosis for long term illness. Make sure you look after yourself and seek out additional help and resources if you need extra support. Some key steps to follow include:

  • Taking your medication regularly as prescribed will help to manage your symptoms and ease your breathing.

  • Quit smoking. Continued exposure to tobacco smoke is likely to cause further damage to your lungs and irritate your airways, making it harder to breathe.

  • Exercise frequently. Be careful not to push yourself too far if you are becoming very breathless.

  • Manage your weight. If you are overweight this puts more pressure on the lungs and exacerbates breathlessness. Sticking to a healthy diet can help with this.

  • Get the flu jab and pneumococcal vaccination from your GP or local pharmacy.

  • Try to avoid environments that contain irritants such as dust, smoke, strong chemicals and fumes.

  • See your doctor regularly to check in.



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