What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an assortment of lung disorders that includes:-

As the name suggests there is obstruction in airways and the patient typically faces difficulties in breathing due to the narrowing of their airways. Symptoms of COPD include:-

  • breathlessness especially when physically active
  • persistent cough with expectoration of phlegm
  • repeated and frequently recurring chest infections

Causes of COPD

Smoking is one of the most important causes of COPD. The risk of COPD is increased by several folds in smokers than in non-smokers. The risk rises with individuals who have smoked for longer durations and have been or are heavy smokers.

Smoking causes irritation and scarring of the inner walls of the airways leading to this raised risk. This persistent inflammation over long years of smoking leads to permanent changes in the lung.

The walls of the airways become thick and produce more mucus. Damage to the air sacs and walls of the airways leads to emphysema and the lungs lose their normal elasticity while breathing. The smaller airways also become scarred and narrowed leading to obstruction.

Other less important causes of COPD include those due to:

COPD statistics

COPD is one of the most common respiratory diseases and is one of the most under-diagnosed lung conditions. Diagnosis is usually not made before 50.

It is thought there are over 3 million people living with the disease in the UK. Of these, only about 900,000 have been diagnosed officially with COPD. This is mainly because those with mild or Stage 1 COPD often have minor symptoms and are often dismissed as having a “smoker’s cough”.

Most other countries show that less than 6% of the population has been told that they have COPD. By contrast, data from prevalence surveys carried out in a number of countries shows that up to about one-quarter of adults aged 40 years and older may have airflow limitation that could be classified as Stage I: Mild COPD or higher.

COPD affects more men than women, although rates in women are increasing with increasing rates of women smokers.

Diagnosis of COPD

COPD needs to be diagnosed as early as possible. Early diagnosis and management can help prevent gross damage to the lungs. Several breathing tests as well as imaging studies like X rays are used in diagnosing COPD.

Management of COPD

The first step in treating COPD is stopping smoking completely. The damage that has already occurred to the lungs, in most cases cannot be reversed, however, the progression of the disease may be slowed.

Treatments for COPD usually involve relieving the symptoms with medication. These medications are usually taken by inhalation and are called bronchodilators because they can help dilate the narrowed airways.

Surgery is only an option for a small number of people with severe COPD.

Prevention of COPD

COPD can be prevented to a certain extent by making changes in the lifestyle. One of the most important ways to prevent COPD is by quitting smoking. Exposure to tobacco smoke, dust, air pollutants etc. also helps in preventing COPD in susceptible individuals.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 12, 2013

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