What should you know about COPD?

Over 35? Ever smoked? Ever been a passive smoker? Breathless when active? Wheezy when active? Chronic chesty cough with phlegm/sputum? Recurrent chest infections? You may have COPD!

Chronic = it’s a long-term condition and does not go away

Obstructive = your airways are narrowed, so it’s harder to breathe out quickly

Pulmonary = it affects your lungs

Disease = it’s a medical condition


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is not a single condition but a collective term for a range of lung diseases and conditions, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease.

The main cause of COPD is smoking and the risk of developing COPD grows in line with how much someone smokes or how long they have been a smoker or exposure to  smoke from other sources and air pollution. A rare genetic condition called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency makes people very susceptible to develop COPD at a young age.

The difficulty breathing is mainly as a result of a narrowing of their airways.

See your GP if you have some or all of the symptoms listed above. They might appear or get worse when you have an infection or breathe in smoke or fumes. 

If your GP thinks you may have COPD, they will ask your practice nurse to check how well your lungs work with a simple test called spirometry, do a blood test and a chest X-ray to rule out other causes of your symptom and calculate your body mass index (BMI) to find out if you’re a healthy weight for your height. This is important because you can deal with your COPD better if you’re not underweight or overweight.

Spirometry involves blowing hard into a machine which measures your lung capacity and how quickly you can empty your lungs. This is called the forced expiratory volume in one second, often shortened to FEV1.

There are treatments to help you breathe more easily, but they can’t reverse the damage to your lungs – so it’s important to get an early diagnosis

COPD is one of the top five killers of people under the age of 75 in England.


What’s the difference between COPD and asthma?

With COPD, your airways have become narrowed permanently – inhaled medication can help to open them up to some extent.

With asthma, the narrowing of your airways comes and goes, often when you’re exposed to a trigger – something that irritates your airways – such as tobacco smoke, dust or pollen. Inhaled medication can open your airways fully, prevent symptoms and relieve symptoms by relaxing your airways.

So, if your breathlessness and other symptoms are much better on some days than others, or if you often wake up in the night feeling wheezy, it’s more likely you have asthma.

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