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HealthInfo Canterbury

About COPD

COPD stands for chronic (which means persistent) obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD affects people in different ways. It can cause breathlessness, coughing and phlegm (the mucus that you cough up from your lungs), and sometimes wheezing.

You can think about your lungs as being made up of tubes and sponges. The tubes bring air in from the outside world. Oxygen from the air transfers to your bloodstream in the spongy part of your lungs (alveoli).

COPD makes the tubes narrow and full of mucus (this is called chronic bronchitis), and damages the spongy parts (this is called emphysema). People with COPD are breathless because they have to work hard to breathe through narrowed tubes and stiff sponges.


COPD is treatable. The most important way to treat it is to stop smoking if you are a smoker.

Who gets COPD?

COPD is much more common in people who smoke or have smoked in the past than people who have never smoked. But there are people who smoke who don't get COPD. COPD can also run in families.

Long-term exposure to second-hand smoke or air pollution can also cause COPD. Inhaling fumes, dust, or smoke during your line of work is another cause.

Could I have COPD?

Often the symptoms of COPD take a long time to appear. You could have the condition for many years and not know about it. The symptoms include:

If you have any of these symptoms and have been a smoker, talk to your doctor about getting a type of breathing test called spirometry. Spirometry is the best way to tell if you have COPD and to work out how bad it is.

On the next page: COPD tests & diagnosis

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by community respiratory physician, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed May 2017.

Page reference: 374471

Review key: HICOP-16602