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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

4-minute read

What is COPD?

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.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

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 as well to medicine, and 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.

How is COPD diagnosed?

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.

How is COPD treated?

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 need 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.

The Lung Foundation offers a Respiratory Nurse Service to help support people living with COPD.

What are the complications of COPD?

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, visit the Lung Foundation Australia website.

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Last reviewed: March 2021

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