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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) affects over 1.2 million people in the UK. It's a chronic disease that significantly impairs lung function and breathing.

Here's an overview of what COPD is, how COPD is diagnosed, its main symptoms, and what you can do to manage the condition.

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What is COPD?

COPD is a common lung disease that restricts airflow, creating breathing problems. It's a broad term used to describe a group of conditions that reduce lung function.

The two main conditions that come under COPD are:

  • Emphysema: A lung disease caused by damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs.
  • Chronic bronchitis: A long-term inflammation of the bronchi. Bronchi are the large tubes that carry air from your windpipe into the lungs. Chronic bronchitis is common among heavy and long-term smokers. People with chronic bronchitis tend to get lung infections more easily. They also have episodes of acute bronchitis, when symptoms are worse.

What are the main symptoms of COPD?

COPD diseases have several symptoms in common. They include:

  • Frequent coughing
  • A persistent cough that produces a lot of mucus
  • Wheezing
  • A whistling or squeaky sound when breathing
  • Tight feeling in your chest
  • Shortness of breath or struggle to catch your breath, especially during any strenuous physical activity

The symptoms start as mild and can resemble a common cold. However, they tend to worsen over time.

You're also more susceptible to winter coughs and chest infections. Your chance of catching them increases, symptoms can become more severe, and it will take you much longer to recover.

Many people living with COPD report periods when their symptoms suddenly worsen. This is known as a flare-up or exacerbation.

What are the leading causes of COPD?

COPD develops when inflammation, damage, or narrowing of the pathways to the lungs occurs.

Smoking is the main cause of COPD. However, the condition can also affect non-smokers and former smokers.

Exposure to chemicals and certain types of dust has also been linked to damaging the lungs and increasing the risk of COPD.

Here's a list of some of the substances linked to COPD:

  • Cadmium dust and fumes
  • Grain and flour dust
  • Silica dust
  • Welding fumes
  • Isocyanates
  • Coal dust

Researchers have also conducted studies suggesting that living in areas with high levels of smoke pollution can cause COPD.

Genetics are another important factor. You have an increased chance of developing COPD if you have a close relative with the condition, suggesting that some people have genes that make them more vulnerable to the condition.

Studies show that those born with alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency can go on to develop COPD, even if they've never smoked. Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a substance that coats and protects your lungs. Without it, your lungs become more susceptible to damage.

How is COPD diagnosed?

If you notice persistent symptoms of COPD, book an appointment with your GP.

During the check-up, your doctor may ask about your symptoms and medical history, including whether you're a smoker, former smoker, or if anyone in your immediate family has a history of lung diseases.

They may also perform a chest examination, using a stethoscope to listen to your breath sounds. If appropriate, the doctor will arrange a breathing test called spirometry.

Spirometry tests show how well your lungs are working. You'll start by inhaling a medicine called a bronchodilator to dilate your airways, then breathe into a machine called a spirometer. The spirometer takes two measurements: the volume of air you breathe out in one second and the total amount of air you can breathe.

The results are then compared with your age group's average, indicating whether your lungs are working at reduced capacity. You may be asked to take the test several times so the doctor can take an accurate average reading.

In some cases, the GP may recommend a blood test or chest x-ray.

Additional tests may be required to confirm the diagnosis or assess the severity of your condition. They could include a phlegm sample, additional scans, or a peak flow test, which measures how fast you can blow air from your lungs.

Is there a cure for COPD?

There's no cure for COPD. And unlike other parts of the body, the damaged lung tissue cannot be repaired or heal itself. Instead, COPD is a chronic condition that requires management via ongoing medical care, lifestyle changes, and sometimes medications and supplements to mitigate symptoms and prevent complications.

Living with COPD: how to manage the symptoms

COPD requires you to proactively manage the symptoms and prevent the condition from rapidly deteriorating.

This approach may include:

  • Stopping smoking. This is crucial for smokers with COPD.
  • Inhalers and medications that can make breathing easier.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation and specialised exercise programs.
  • Maintaining an appropriate level of physical activity to strengthen the lungs and cardiovascular system.
  • Staying up to date with influenza and pneumonia vaccinations to prevent infections.

It's also important to consider lifestyle factors. For example, avoid working or spending time in dusty environments and avoid holidays in areas with high humidity or high levels of air pollution.

Surgeries, including lung transplants, are an option. However, they are only appropriate for a small group of people who cannot manage their symptoms effectively.


Authored & Reviewed By

Mohamed Imran

Mohamed Imran Lakhi

MPharm - Lead Pharmacist
This content has been written and checked for quality and accuracy by Imran Lakhi is the superintendent pharmacist and founder at Prescription Doctor. He has been at the core of our team.

Published on: 08/11/2023 Reviewed on: 08/11/2023
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