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

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

8-minute read

Key facts

    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of long-term lung conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
    • It causes shortness of breath, a cough that gets worse and can affect your daily activities over time.
    • It is usually caused by smoking.
    • Quitting smoking is the best way to slow down the worsening of your symptoms.
    • COPD can be managed with a healthy lifestyle, inhaled medicines and a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of long-term lung conditions that make it difficult to breathe and get worse over time. It includes:

  • emphysema
  • chronic bronchitis
  • chronic asthma

In emphysema, there is damage to the air sacs in your lungs. Air becomes trapped inside, making it hard to breathe in.

In chronic bronchitis, the lining of your airways is irritated and produces a lot of mucus.

In chronic asthma, the walls of your small airways become tight, making it hard for air to get in and out.

COPD affects about 1 in 20 Australians aged 45 and over — including 1 in 10 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. It is one of the leading causes of death in Australia.

Is asthma the same as COPD?

Asthma and COPD both involve blockage of your airways, but they are different.

For most people with asthma, medicines can widen your airways and help your breathing get back to normal. However, if you have chronic asthma (a type of asthma where medicines don't work as well to help your breathing go back to normal), this is considered part of COPD.

There is also a condition called 'asthma-COPD overlap'. This is where someone has symptoms of both asthma and COPD. It usually causes worse symptoms than either condition on its own and needs different treatment.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

If you are in the earliest stages of COPD, you may not have any symptoms.

When symptoms appear, they may include:

Symptoms come on gradually. At first, you might think you are just unfit or getting older. As time goes on, symptoms get worse and interfere more with your daily activities.

At times, your symptoms may get worse suddenly. This is known as an 'exacerbation' (or attack) of COPD. Exacerbations are often triggered by respiratory infections (like a cold or flu).

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes COPD?

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. One in every 4 or 5 people who smoke will develop COPD. You are still at risk if you have smoked in the past.

Other causes include:

  • passive smoking — especially if your parents smoked when you were young
  • exposure to pollution, fumes and dust
  • lung problems in childhood
  • asthma
  • a rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency

When should I see my doctor?

See your doctor if you notice you are getting short of breath with less effort.

It's a good idea to see your doctor to check your lungs if you are over 35 years old and you have ever smoked or been exposed to fumes and dust at work.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist for help if you want to quit smoking.

If you have COPD, see your doctor immediately if you have symptoms of an exacerbation, such as:

  • shortness of breath or cough that is worse than usual
  • more phlegm than usual
  • getting tired more easily
  • fever
  • swelling of your legs

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance if you:

  • are so short of breath that you have difficulty talking, walking or sleeping
  • feel confused or sleepy
  • have blue lips or nails
  • feel an unusual heartbeat

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is COPD diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, ask if you have ever smoked and what environment you work in.

They will ask you to do a breathing test called spirometry. This involves blowing hard into a tube, taking an inhaler medicine and blowing into the tube again. This measures how much air and how fast you can breathe. It shows if you have COPD.

Your doctor might ask you to have an x-ray of your chest, blood tests or other tests of your lungs.

How is COPD treated?

There is no cure for COPD, but there are treatments that can help you feel better and slow down the worsening of your symptoms. It is very important that you take the treatments exactly as your doctor prescribes, to slow down the progression of your COPD.

Lifestyle changes

The most important thing is to quit smoking, if you smoke. Talk to your doctor about treatments that can help you quit. If your partner smokes, ask them if they would consider quitting, or smoking outside.

You can keep healthy by:


You will probably be prescribed medicines via an inhaler to help you breathe. These medicines open up your airways, or reduce inflammation inside them.

You might have an inhaler to use every day, and another inhaler to use when you feel short of breath. As your symptoms get worse, you might need an inhaler that contains a combination of medicines.

You may need antibiotics if you have a chest infection.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

It's helpful to participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation program. This is an exercise and education program that can help you breathe and cope with everyday tasks more easily.

It includes:

  • exercises to increase your physical abilities
  • techniques to clear your airways, breathe effectively and save your energy
  • information about using your medicine correctly
  • emotional support

Managing exacerbations

It's important to see your doctor if your symptoms flare up. They may prescribe:

  • inhaled medicines
  • steroid tablets
  • antibiotics

You may need to go to hospital for treatment.

Severe COPD

If your COPD is severe, you may need to breathe oxygen from a portable tank at home. Rarely, you may be offered surgery.

Can COPD be prevented?

You can prevent COPD by:

  • avoiding smoking
  • being physically active
  • using personal protective equipment at work

What are the complications of COPD?

COPD can lead to a range of complications, including:

Resources and support

Visit Lung Foundation Australia for more information and to access a Respiratory Care Nurse service for support.

Check out information about COPD for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.

If you want to quit smoking, call Quitline on 13 78 48.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) medicines

Medicines for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) fall into 2 categories. Learn about reliever medicines & maintenance medicines for COPD.

Read more on NPS MedicineWise website

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Overview - Lung Foundation Australia

COPD Infographic The COPD infographic provides a snapshot of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in Australia including key statistics, causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for the lung diseases emphysema, chronic bronchitis and bronchiectasis.

Read more on WA Health website

Living with COPD - Asthma Australia

1 in 7 people over 40 have COPD, I am one of them…My name is Patricia and I have Stage 4 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease more commonly known as COPD.

Read more on Asthma Australia 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

My COPD Checklist - Lung Foundation Australia

The My COPD Checklist provides an overview of the key strategies to manage your Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

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 -

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

COPD - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease - St Vincent's Lung Health

Learn about Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease (COPD) its causes, symptoms, possible tests and treatments.

Read more on St Vincent's Hospital Lung Health website

How to use a COPD Action Plan - Lung Foundation Australia

A Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Action Plan helps you recognise when your symptoms change and what action you should take

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia 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 Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.