Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.

It includes:

  • emphysema – damage to the air sacs in the lungs
  • chronic bronchitis – long-term inflammation of the airways

COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke. Many people don't realise they have it.

The breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time and can limit your normal activities, although treatment can help keep the condition under control.

This page covers:

Symptoms

When to get medical advice

Causes

Treatments

Outlook

Prevention

Symptoms of COPD

The main symptoms of COPD are:

  • increasing breathlessness, particularly when you're active
  • a persistent chesty cough with phlegm – some people may dismiss this as just a "smoker's cough"
  • frequent chest infections
  • persistent wheezing

Without treatment, the symptoms usually get slowly worse. There may also be periods when they get suddenly worse, known as a flare-up or exacerbation.

Read more about the symptoms of COPD.

When to get medical advice

See your GP if you have persistent symptoms of COPD, particularly if you're over 35 and smoke or used to smoke.

Don't ignore the symptoms. If they're caused by COPD, it's best to start treatment as soon as possible, before your lungs become significantly damaged.

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and whether you smoke or have smoked in the past. They can organise a breathing test to help diagnose COPD and rule out other lung conditions, such as asthma.

Read more about how COPD is diagnosed.

Causes of COPD

COPD occurs when the lungs become inflamed, damaged and narrowed. The main cause is smoking, although the condition can sometimes affect people who have never smoked.

The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more you smoke and the longer you've smoked.

Some cases of COPD are caused by long-term exposure to harmful fumes or dust, or occur as a result of a rare genetic problem that means the lungs are more vulnerable to damage.

Read more about the causes of COPD.

Treatments for COPD

The damage to the lungs caused by COPD is permanent, but treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition.

Treatments include:

  • stopping smoking – if you have COPD and you smoke, this is the most important thing you can do
  • inhalers and medications – to help make breathing easier
  • pulmonary rehabilitation – a specialised programme of exercise and education
  • surgery or a lung transplant – although this is only an option for a very small number of people

Read more about how COPD is treated and living with COPD.

Outlook for COPD

The outlook for COPD varies from person to person. The condition can't be cured or reversed, but for many people treatment can help keep it under control so it doesn't severely limit their daily activities.

But in some people COPD may continue to get worse despite treatment, eventually having a significant impact on their quality of life and leading to life-threatening problems.

Preventing COPD

COPD is largely a preventable condition. You can significantly reduce your chances of developing it if you avoid smoking.

If you already smoke, stopping can help prevent further damage to your lungs before it starts to cause troublesome symptoms.

If you think you need help to stop smoking, you can contact NHS Smokefree for free advice and support. You may also want to talk to your GP about the stop smoking medications available.

Read more about advice about stopping smoking or find a stop smoking service near you.

Page last reviewed: 05/09/2016

Next review due: 05/09/2019