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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.

These lung conditions include emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma. The main cause of COPD is smoking.

If you notice that you are gradually getting more short 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 diagnosis

First your doctor is likely to take a medical history and ask you some questions, such as whether you smoke, 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 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 persistent cough
  • 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 medication, 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 medication. 

COPD treatment

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

  • quitting smoking, if you are a smoker (ask your doctor for help with this)
  • having ‘pulmonary rehabilitation’ (an exercise program to help you breathe and function easier)
  • getting regular exercise
  • eating a healthy diet
  • taking medications to help you breathe easier (these are usually inhaled, and either work to open up the airways, or reduce inflammation inside them)
  • having an annual influenza vaccination and a possible one-off pneumococcal vaccine
  • acting quickly if your symptoms flare-up (consult your doctor about the best way to do this)
  • having oxygen at home, if you have severe COPD.

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
  • high pressure in the blood vessels to your lungs (known as pulmonary hypertension)
  • an increased risk of heart disease
  • lung cancer (for smokers)
  • depression
  • frequent visits to hospital
  • 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: April 2017

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

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