Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 



Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a collection of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease. People with COPD have trouble breathing in and out, due to long-term damage to the lungs, usually because of smoking. Watch this video to find out more about COPD (bronchitis and emphysema), which affects an estimated 3 million people in the UK.

Media last reviewed: 21/10/2013

Next review due: 21/10/2015

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a collection of lung diseases including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease.

People with COPD have difficulties breathing, primarily due to the narrowing of their airways, this is called airflow obstruction.

Typical symptoms of COPD include:

  • increasing breathlessness when active
  • a persistent cough with phlegm
  • frequent chest infections

Read more about the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Why does COPD happen?

The main cause of COPD is smoking. The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more you smoke and the longer you've been smoking. This is because smoking irritates and inflames the lungs, which results in scarring.

Over many years, the inflammation leads to permanent changes in the lung. The walls of the airways thicken and more mucus is produced. Damage to the delicate walls of the air sacs in the lungs causes emphysema and the lungs lose their normal elasticity. The smaller airways also become scarred and narrowed. These changes cause the symptoms of breathlessness, cough and phlegm associated with COPD.

Some cases of COPD are caused by fumes, dust, air pollution and genetic disorders, but these are rarer.

Read more about the causes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Who is affected?

COPD is one of the most common respiratory diseases in the UK. It usually only starts to affect people over the age of 35, although most people are not diagnosed until they are in their 50s.

It is thought there are more than 3 million people living with the disease in the UK, of which only about 900,000 have been diagnosed. This is because many people who develop symptoms of COPD do not get medical help because they often dismiss their symptoms as a ‘smoker’s cough’.

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


It is important that COPD is diagnosed as early as possible so treatment can be used to try to slow down the deterioration of your lungs. You should see your GP if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above.

COPD is usually diagnosed after a consultation with your doctor, which may be followed by breathing tests.

Read more about diagnosing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Treating COPD

Although the damage that has already occurred to your lungs cannot be reversed, you can slow down the progression of the disease. Stopping smoking is particularly effective at doing this.

Treatments for COPD usually involve relieving the symptoms with medication, for example by using an inhaler to make breathing easier. Pulmonary rehabilitation may also help increase the amount of exercise you are capable of doing.

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

Read more about treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Living with COPD

COPD can affect your life in many ways, but help is available to reduce its impact.

Simple steps such as living in a healthy way, being as active as possible, learning breathing techniques, and taking your medication can help you to reduce the symptoms of COPD.

Financial support and advice about relationships and end of life care is also available for people with COPD.

Read more about living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Want to know more?

  • British Lung Foundation: COPD

Can COPD be prevented?

Although COPD causes about 25,000 deaths a year in the UK, severe COPD can usually be prevented by making changes to your lifestyle.

If you smoke, stopping is the single most effective way to reduce your risk of getting the condition.

Research has shown you are up to four times more likely to succeed in giving up smoking if you use NHS support along with stop-smoking medicines such as patches or gum. Ask your doctor about this, call the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0300 123 1044 or go to the NHS Smokefree website.

Also avoid exposure to tobacco smoke as much as possible.

Want to know more?

Page last reviewed: 01/10/2014

Next review due: 01/10/2016


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The 29 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Pollyagain said on 26 October 2014

I feel rather conned by the term COPD. However unlike Lesme below, I have had good experiences generally with my GPs. The real point is that COPD is a catch-all cop-out, really. All it means is that the patient has some form of ongoing continuous obstruction in the pulmonary system - that phrase in itself has nothing to do with smoking, except co-incidentally yet there are too many times when medical practitioners lock on to the that the patient smokes, or once did smoke and even a case or several when a doctor has said the patient does not have COPD because they never smoked. How did such doctors get qualified for anything, let alone as GP diagnosticians?
Anyway, I have had what is now classified as COPD since I was about four years old and I am now well into my 70s. I get serious bouts of breathing difficulty and have always brought up masses of white foamy fluid whether "reporting sick" or not. Sometimes, of course the stuff is horribly contaminated. I honestly think that I have survived all this time because I had to learn how to control things right from childhood.
Yes, I did smoke from late teens until middle age (and that felt like a relief, frankly) but gave up many years ago because it stopped easing things.
Anyway, there are many diseases that could easily be called COPD and many of them have nothing to do with smoking.
So, what is to be done to clarify all this?

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Jonesfromlondon89 said on 08 October 2014

When we had our office refurbished this flared up my asthma. I was in and out of work. The company did some tests and bought in a couple of air purifiers, I have one not far from my desk and it has really made a difference.

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Puddy22 said on 06 August 2014

I was diagnosed three years ago with Genetic COPD plus Asthma i have had Asthma as far back as i can remember .. I am 56 yrs old but my lungs are the age of an 86 year old .. I used to smoke but have not for over seventeen years .. I have no idea what stage i am but i too as was mentioned am always asked .. How many cigarettes do i smoke .. I tell them i do not and they just look shocked .. My main question i guess is what stage am i !

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simon1330 said on 01 August 2014

My Dad passed away in April with the condition of COPD, my Father had COPD for at least fifteen years, spending alot of time in hospital, bad chest infections, he could not walk any more than a few feet without being so short of breath. he had to go on oxygen for the past 4 to 5 years of his life. It was horrible to see my father being so weak, I do think if anyone smokes they should give up because the chances of becoming ill with COPD is very high.

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lesme said on 28 July 2014

I think I have been suffering with copd for many years. I first went to my doctor about 15 years ago complaining of not getting satifaction with breathing, I was yawning and could not always reach a climax. I told the doctor this and he said that I must be getting satisfaction otherwise I wouldn't be here. About five years later I complained again to another doctor and he told me that I could not have emphysema as i had never been a smoker.
Three years ago a new doctor came to the practice and sent me to have a test with a nurse who had a knowledge of copd and the test showed that I had lost about 30% of my lung capacity. I am now on two inhalersVentolin which I take as required and Serevent which I take morning and night.

They have given me some relief but I am still breathless especially in the evening. I have been exercising all my life with jogging and using weights which reallly help the opening of my lungs, I try to eercise every day. I have never smoked and put my disability to the filthy air where I lived in the Manchester especially in the 40's and 50's.

My experience with doctors leaves a lot to be desired.

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Powis said on 28 January 2014

I have been told today that I might be in the very early stages of COPD. Having looked it all up, I am somewhat concerned (but I should'nt really be, being a smoker) as I have been going to my GP for some 18 months.

I have been put on to an inhaler, and am amazed at the difference it made walking up the hill tonight, after just two goes on the inhaler.

So from today, I am on all the nicotine support stuff. Tomorrow is another day, and I intend to stop smoking. But watch this space. Saying it is easy, but doing it is another matter. Which to be totally honest is a very easy excuse.

I cared for my mum through her last weeks of lung cancer. 5 minutes after she died, I was out there having a cigarette! That should have been my lesson .....
Hopefully if I am in the very early stages, stopping smoking and picking up on physical activity should help.

There are no excuses, I have made (bad) choices.
I am due to have my tests on Monday. So lets hope I am not too far down the line...............

Many folks have said their afflicted family/friend was in a state of depression. Does that make a difference?

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Tyaloria said on 01 January 2014

I am 31 and have genetic COPD. The Dr's and nurses were treating me for pleurisy for over a year before they decided to do some more invasive tests after my consistent moaning.
Regardless of your age (I know guidelines say its rare before age 35), if you think something's wrong just go and have a check up. Stamp you feet and ask to be seen by a respiratory nurse.
The sooner you catch the symptoms the more likely that you can get help.
oxox Good luck.

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maywood said on 17 August 2013

my wife was diagnosed with COPD 5 years ago, she died suddenly recently and the post mortem report said that her respiratory system was normal with no scarring or abnormalities,her lungs were oedematous which I presume was a result of the heart attack she suffered.If she had COPD would the damage caused by this disease have shown up at post mortem?I am wondering if she had a heart problem 5 years ago and not COPD

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Elizabeth1234 said on 17 May 2013

My Mum was diagnosed with this years ago and sadly died in 2002 age 50 when I was only just a teenager. She also had mental health issues. When I was young I didn't understand that this was but now im conducting my research. I feel so sad that my mum is not here but also feel a bit angry?? She was a heavy smoker and not just the cigarettes also 'wacky backy'. She didn't even stop smoking.. So to anyone who has this horrible disease please stop smoking! None of this 'i cant' because you can! It could mean the difference between a few extra years with your loved ones and not leaving your children/grandchildren without a mother & grandma.

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MarcusK said on 28 April 2013

It appears that my Father has been diagnosed with COPD. I say 'appears' as we only found out when he attended an Asthma clinic, which he received a letter from his GP telling him to attend, only to be told that he'd been booked into the wrong clinic as he had COPD. As the nurse was reading from the existing GP notes, she assumed that we knew what she was talking about. When we explained that we did not have a clue, she was very surprised, telling us that he had been diagnosed years ago and been treated for this for some time.
He's been steadily getting more unwell for the past 3 years and the last 18 months has seen an increasing downturn in health.
He's had no support or explanation about his disorder and has been told nothing about managing it.
Be warned! Make sure that when you are talking to your GP you ask questions and never be satisfied that you have been told everything!

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Wendinthewillows said on 06 March 2013

I were diagnosed with COPD in May 1999, in Sept 2004 I were lucky enough to lung volume reduction surgery, half my right lung were removed, Since diagnosis I have never used inhalers and in 14 years I've probably had 14 chest infections, I rarely have a flu vaccine and during a recent annual visit to my respiratory consultant, I was told I look better than ever and all my pulmonary function tests this year have increased yet again, albeit only slightly. The reason for this, well the reason I believe is because of my positive attitude, my consultant will back me on this too, I continue to work in a very demanding and manual job, I ride a bike and I refuse to let this disease beat me .. perhaps I'm one of the lucky ones but I think not ...

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GregE123 said on 21 September 2012

Rosy B- there are methods of controlling COPD so do not lose heart. and some are quite effective.

Unfortunately every time I post one up here the moderators take it down citing "personal gain" which is odd because the treatments are generic and naturally occurring - I cannot even mention a web site that deals with many ailments and has many participants corresponding.

All I can do is say that you will need access to the internet and do google searches on "COPD alternative treatment" or some such.

I have COPD (moderators: this blog allows "personal experience") and have experienced very marked improvements. The several remedies I have tried are all very inexpensive.

Sorry, I cannot say any more.

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Rosy B said on 30 August 2012

My husband has COPD. It is stated on your website that if sufferers make lifestyle changes, the COPD will not worsen. This is just not true. My husband gave up smoking as soon as he was diagnosed in 2002, but the disease continues relentlessly. Also, I have read elsewhere that COPD patients should have physio to help clear the chest, and advice regarding exercises to help breathing and increase lung capacity, but he has never received any advice of that nature, just a regular check-up with the asthma nurse at the surgery.

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GregE123 said on 20 May 2012

Well, about 20 years ago I had complained to my GP a number of times about my breathing which I had noticed got worse in the spring and autumn when I tended to get flu's. He also always dismissed my complaints - I remember his last comment was "go take a run on the common". Which I, as a respectful type of person, did (ending up gasping). Then I insisted on a hospital visit where they diagnosed bronchitis (COPD today). I knew it was a disease but didnt really know anything ( this was before the internet) and nobody including my the respected GP told me anything about it.

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als1uk said on 20 May 2012

i was diagnosed with copd at 38 years of age!! i had club finger nails and toes for atleast 5 years before my diagnosis! which as they are very sore kept questioning my gp about not once was i sent for a chest xray!! was taken into hospital with chest pains after i was checked for a heart attack sent home told nothing wrong with you !!! thought i was going mad! they just couldnt get there heads around someone so young having emphysema /copd if they had checked me properly im sure with inhalers and teh right advice the 5 years before diagnoses would have been far more bearable!!! gps do not know enough about lung disease and the associated illnesses pains and problems!!

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ruth4214 said on 12 May 2012

hi ruth i am carer for my husband who got copd

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ruth4214 said on 12 May 2012

my husband got copd and mental health as well and i got to watch all the time and we got a son with leaning disabilities i am care for my husband and mum to my son it is very hard job looking after my husband

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ruth4214 said on 12 May 2012

my hunsband has got copd and i am very worry about him he is only in his 40's

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Nora Leonard Roy said on 30 April 2012

Sue Freewoman,
Have you been tested for Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency? It is a rare genetic cause of emphysema/copd. I have it, and so do thousands of others in the UK, the USA, and many other countries. Do not despair.

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Nora Leonard Roy said on 30 April 2012

To Sue Freewoman,
You may have Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. The test for it is a blood test, probably available through your own gp or your respiratory consultant. If you do have Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, as I and many other people do, do not despair. There are excellent resources for information and support. The best right now are available through the American organizations, the Alpha-1 Association
and the Alpha-1 Foundation

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Sue Freewoman said on 29 April 2012

I was diagnosed with COPD on 3rd February this year. I have never smoked, but spent many years living with a pipe smoker. I'm 57. When I first googled this condition, I was met with 'irreversible and degenerative'; lung transplants for the young; morphine and tranquillisers in the final stages; and one article telling me I had between 6 months and 5 years to live. It certainly seems rapidly degenerative. Since then I've had a 2 month bout of broncitis and am now breathless every day and night. Am deeply depressed. Any ideas?

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me vicky said on 29 December 2011

what to do when u cant eat then it make u bad his their someone that can tell me what is best to eat

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helenherbert said on 31 October 2011

Sweetchilli I empathise with you regarding the lack of sympathy for COPD sufferers. My mum (78 years old) has had chronic asthma since a child and was diagnosed with COPD 5 years ago. It is terminal and she has frequent exacerbations. Every chest infection is life threatening. She has never smoked a cigarette in her life and doctors always ask her how many cigarettes she smokes a day! Friends say how well she looks but they cannot see the state of her lungs. She has nebulisers and oxygen at home. Exacerbations this year have been treated with a CPAP machine as her CO2 levels get out of kilter and cause hypoxia which can be life threatening. We spend an awful lot of time at the hospital but my mum is still with us and her grandchildrten and I am thankful for that.

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maruth said on 19 September 2011

i had a mobility problem before COPD,but have lost a lot of strength in my legs,since being told not to climb the stairs anymore,have lost my simple exercise sheets,but i must do some exercise not to lose anymore
is it possible to have a second reference to pulmonary rehab.

i am on oxygen now, for exercise ,would really benefit from P R, if possible.does anyone know about this

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SamanthaPia said on 15 May 2011

I was Diagnosed with copd because an xray revealed a broken rib from 6 years ago that i was unaware of. the xray was for heart pain, but the shadow of the broken rid (thought it might be asbestos at first) caused them to ask for a CT scan. that showed the broken rib and COPD.within 6 months i have also been diagnosed with severe obstructive Sleep apnoea(OSA) (i stop breathing 45 times per hour on average). and have a CPAP machine to collect on Friday to use. On top of 9 heart attacks, and 3 stents. and i am not 50 years old yet.. what next?
The staff at the hospital are 1st class and look after me very well. my oxygen saturation was 90% at the last appointment. they will take it again next week and if it is that low again, i will most likely have oxygen at home. 3 lung infections in 6 weeks is doing my head in and i cant get rid of the last one so going to let it fester till its so bad the hospital have to deal with it.
Memory is a huge issue, i can forget what we are talking about in mid conversation, its embarrassing. but not as much as being over taken by 2 80 plus year old ladies who would do well in the grand national. 3 inhalers a day and one causes thrush, not a winner within my all female social group and club. kissing is off the list of things to do.

Weight. any fool except the NHS can do the maths here. Sammie walks for 4 hours at the pace i can walk, and that burns off 800 calories. i eat 1600 (less that a child's amount) and i put on 800 calories in weight. this equates to about 1 pound per month of weight on. i am advised not to go on a 1200cal diet, but that still puts on 400Cal's I need to be on an 800calorie diet just to break even and stop putting weight on. But that low means i get fatigued all day just doing minor things. so Diet is not the answer. what is? how long can i go with just water and multivitamin pills every day?

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David1971 said on 09 May 2011

My father was diagnosed as having COPD at least 3 yrs ago. In the last 5 weeks I got a call from him saying he has been diagnosed with Lung Cancer. As you can imagine it was a very upsetting time. So what we thought was a long term illness suddenly became months. Not 3 weeks later my father passed away. The post mortem showed that he had no signs of cancer at all and that he died from pneumonia. I'm at a loss and angry that a man in his early 60's can first be diagnosed as having lung cancer and then subsequently die of pneumonia was this a misdiagnosis becasue of his COPD? I just don't know what to do next I just keep thinking if he had pneumonia and it was diagnosed as such would he be alive today...

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C Nayak said on 27 August 2010

I was diagnosed for lung (pulmonary fibrosis) just by
chance as I had flu like symptoms not ridd of by antibiotics. Prior to this on many occassions had flu , cold etc. but no specialist involved until very late.

I am not sure if this happens as normal or are the COPD (just treated as such).

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SweetChili said on 11 March 2010

I was born with severe chronic asthma and spent a real lot of my childhood in hospital in an 'oxygen tent'. I disappointed my Mum when I started smoking as a teenager! I was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in my twenties and then COPD in my thirties. Now, in my early fourties I'm am suffering quite badly! I have a lot of 'nodules' on both of my lungs as well as some 'blisters'
I am constantly breathless and find my medication (two types of inhalers) to be somewhat useless! I was given a home nebuliser, recommended by A&E as I was going there so often with exaserbations it made sense! but, after seeing a 'specialist' I was denied the 'nebules' to use in it! he said I could 'overdose' being that I'm on two inhalers already!
Recently, the same 'specialist' has said that my breathlessness is 'in my head'!!! I'm very upset by this! how can someone with severe asthma and COPD be told their breathlessness is all in their head??

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shirley1941 said on 26 February 2010

I have coughed and spluttered my way through life for 68 years. Havng been told by NHS, no alergies, nothing wrong just Asthmatic.. It took a doctor in France to tell me I have, Pulmopnary Fibrosis. It is there on the lung scan to see. Old sca tissue that is now beginning to become a problem.

Because I come from an Asthmatic family, it was always told (uk gp) I was asthmatic. Had someone actually done a lung scan the fiobrosis would have been found sooner. It is too late now. I am 68 and the only thing I can do is to try to stay well, free from germs, stress and just keep swallowing steroids..... Am I angry? Yes It is so easy to stick labels on people, because my siblings are asthmatic then of course I must be too! Rubbish.

I have never smoked and as far as I am aware never been anywhere where toxics might have affected my lungs. But It seems I come from a family with history of pulmonary problems. Hereditery? Origin unknown is what the Drs say. Passive smoking? Asbestosis? You tell me!


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