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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the name for a collection of lung diseases including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease. People with COPD have difficulties breathing, primarily due to the narrowing of their airways.  This is called airflow obstruction.  

Typical symptoms of COPD include:

  • increasing breathlessness when active
  • a persistent cough with phlegm
  • frequent chest infections.

Read more about COPD symptoms.  

The causes of COPD

The main cause of COPD is smoking. The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more you smoke and the longer you've been smoking. This is because smoking irritates and inflames the lungs, which results in scarring.  Over many years, the inflammation leads to permanent changes in the lung. The walls of the airways thicken and more mucus is produced. Damage to the delicate walls of the air sacs in the lungs causes emphysema and the lungs lose their normal elasticity. The smaller airways also become scarred and narrowed. These changes cause the symptoms of breathlessness, cough and phlegm associated with COPD.  Some cases of COPD are caused by fumes, dust, air pollution and genetic disorders, but these are rarer. Read more about the causes of COPD.   

COPD is one of the most common respiratory diseases in the UK. It usually only starts to affect people over the age of 35, although most people are not diagnosed until they are in their 50s.  It is thought there are more than 3 million people living with the disease in the UK, of which only about 900,000 have been diagnosed. This is because many people who develop symptoms of COPD do not get medical help because they often dismiss their symptoms as a ‘smoker’s cough’.COPD affects more men than women, although rates in women are increasing.

Diagnosis

It is important that COPD is diagnosed as early as possible so treatment can be used to try to slow down the deterioration of your lungs, and so that you can consider what lifestyle changes you could make.

When should I see my GP about COPD ?

Problems with feeling out of breath could be caused by a range of conditions other than COPD.  You should see your GP if you have any of the following symptoms - 

  • A cough that is present for more than 3 weeks, especially if it keeps coming back
  • Getting short of breath faster than other people of your age when you are active
  • Persistent sputum production

Getting diagnosed with COPD

COPD is usually diagnosed after a consultation with your doctor. If COPD is being considered as a diagnosis they will organise for you to have spirometry - a special breathing test which can be done at most GP practices. Please do not smoke at all on the day of your spirometry test as this can affect your results.

There are some medical conditions which can mean you cannot have spirometry. Your GP or Nurse will be aware of these.

You can find out what to expect from spirometry on the British Lung Foundation website:

https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/breathing-tests/spirometry-and-reversibility

Treating & Living with COPD

The main treatments for COPD are stopping smoking, exercising more, vaccinations and inhalers. Stopping smoking can slow down the speed of deterioration of COPD. Exercising more, including taking up the offer of Pulmonary Rehabilitation, can allow you to be able to do more with the lungs that you have.  Although the lung function tests get worse over time, lung function tests on their own do not necessarily match your quality of life and what you are able to do. You can have two people with a low lung function test on spirometry but they have different experiences of living with COPD. Taking part in pulmonary rehab and linking into local COPD support groups can make a big difference.

Financial support and advice about relationships and end of life care is also available for people with COPD. Want to know more?

  • British Lung Foundation: COPD

Can COPD be prevented?

Although COPD causes about 25,000 deaths a year in the UK, severe COPD can usually be prevented by making changes to your lifestyle. If you smoke, stopping is the single most effective way to reduce your risk of getting the condition. Research has shown you are up to four times more likely to succeed in giving up smoking if you use NHS support along with stop-smoking medicines such as patches or gum. Ask your doctor about this, call the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0300 123 1044 or go to the NHS Smokefree website.  Also avoid exposure to tobacco smoke as much as possible.

Want to know more?

We offer a wide range of support services in East Lancashire for patients with COPD. See our COPD Support page.