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Overview of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

Illustration showing healthy lungs and airways with inflammation & mucus due to chromic bronchitis and alveoli breaking down due to emphysema.COPD is a long-term lung condition that can cause breathlessness, coughing, mucus (sputum or phlegm) 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're a smoker.

COPD is much more common in people who smoke or have smoked in the past than people who have never smoked. 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.

Symptoms of 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.

Diagnosing COPD

You may need several tests to diagnose COPD and rule out other causes of your shortness of breath.

A breathing test known as spirometry is the best way to tell if you have COPD and to work out how bad it is. This is a simple test. You blow into a machine that measures how well your lungs are working.

There are several places where you can have the test. Your GP will refer you to the one that is most convenient for you.

Other tests you may have include:

Treating COPD

While COPD can’t be cured, treatment can prevent it getting worse and help with your symptoms.

There are also several things you can do to help yourself manage your COPD.

Not smoking is the best way to help your COPD and stop it getting worse.

Medications can reduce the effects of COPD like infections and wheeze.

A specialised exercise and education programme known as pulmonary rehabilitation such as the Canterbury Better Breathing programme is an important part of treatment.

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On the next page: Self-care for COPD

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2021.

Page reference: 374471

Review key: HICOP-16602