Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

COPD

3-minute read

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term that includes a number of long-term lung conditions such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma. The main cause of COPD is smoking.

COPD causes narrowing of the airways in the lung, making it difficult to breathe. It gets worse over time.

1 in 20 Australians aged 45 and over have COPD. It’s the 5th leading cause of death in Australia.

If you notice that you are gradually getting shorter of breath, it is wise to see your doctor. Anyone over 35 who smokes should have a lung check for COPD, especially if they cough, bring up mucus on most days or are short of breath compared with others the same age.

COPD symptoms

If you are in the earliest stages of COPD, you may not have any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • feeling breathless
  • a new or persistentcough
  • producing a lot of phlegm (mucus), which is swallowed or coughed up

Wheezing and chest tightness are also common symptoms.

COPD symptoms are very similar to asthma symptoms. COPD symptoms usually appear after 50, don't respond well to medicine, and they gradually get worse. Most people with COPD have been smokers. With asthma, people usually also have allergic conditions like hay fever. Their symptoms may flare up but they go back to normal with medicine.

COPD diagnosis

First your doctor is likely to take a medical history and ask you some questions, such as whether you smoke or have smoked, if you have any allergies, and what sort of environment you work in.

After talking to you, your doctor may examine you and listen to your chest.

Finally, a breathing test called spirometry is used. This involves breathing into a small machine called a spirometer, which shows whether you have COPD, and if so, how bad it is. It can also help distinguish between COPD and some other conditions such as asthma. Some people may also need an x-ray of their chest or other tests.

COPD treatment

There is no cure for COPD, but it can be managed. There are several different treatments that can help manage COPD.

The most important thing is to quit smoking, if you are a smoker (ask your doctor for help with this).

You will probably be prescribed medicines to help you breathe easier. These are usually inhaled, and either work to open up the airways, or reduce inflammation inside them. You may also be given ‘pulmonary rehabilitation’, an exercise program to help you breathe and function easier.

It’s important to act quickly if your symptoms flare-up. Your doctor will explain what to do. If your COPD is severe, you may have oxygen at home.

You can also keep healthy by getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, having an annual influenza vaccination and a possible one-off pneumococcal vaccine

There are ways to help you learn how to cope with everyday tasks despite feeling breathless.

COPD complications

COPD can lead to a range of complications, including susceptibility to respiratory infections, such as colds, the flu and pneumonia. It can also lead to high pressure in the blood vessels to your lungs (known as pulmonary hypertension).

People with COPD are at increased risk of heart disease, lung cancer (for smokers), depression, frequent visits to hospital and a reduced quality of life.

Where can I find out more about COPD?

To learn more about COPD, follow the links below to trusted information or visit the Lung Foundation website.

Last reviewed: February 2019

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: COPD - myDr.com.au

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term (chronic) condition that affects the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

Read more on myDr website

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) information | myVMC

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is an irreversible degenerative lung condition which obstructs airflow. It is a leading cause of death.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

What is COPD? - Cancer Institute NSW

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is not cancer, but it is linked to smoking. Also known as emphysema, it is estimated to impact almost 1.5 million people across Australia. Find out about the causes and symptoms of COPD.

Read more on NSW Health website

Lung conditions - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - Better Health Channel

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the collective term for a number of lung diseases that prevent proper breathing.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

COPD Overview| Lung Foundation Australia

Being told you or someone you love has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease can be a very overwhelming and frightening experience.

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease | National Centre for Farmer Health

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory illness is a major cause of death in Australia and is more common in farming communities. Read more...

Read more on National Centre for Farmer Health website

COPD: treatment and management - myDr.com.au

Although COPD cannot be cured, there are measures that can be taken that should relieve symptoms, slow progression and prevent complications.

Read more on myDr website

Emphysema (COPD, lung disease) information | myVMC

Emphysema is type of chronic lung disease (COPD) or chronic bronchitis. It is usually associated with smoking, but is sometimes hereditary.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Inhaler devices for respiratory medicines - NPS MedicineWise

Learn more about inhaler options for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) & asthma.

Read more on NPS MedicineWise website

Chronic bronchitis (lung disease) information | myVMC

Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The main symptom is chronic cough. The most common cause is smoking.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo