Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)


What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the overall name for a number of lung conditions, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These diseases make it difficult to breathe.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

The first symptom of mild COPD is an early morning cough that may produce phlegm (a smoker's cough). You may also have shortness of breath.

As the condition gets worse, wheezing becomes more of a problem and everyday activities will make you more breathless than usual. If you have severe COPD you will get breathless with the slightest activity, or even while resting.

All of these symptoms may be worse in the winter or after a cold.

Who gets COPD?

COPD usually affects people over the age of 40 and is more common in men. A few sufferers could have a family history of COPD.

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Other causes include severe chest infections in childhood, repeated chest infections as an adult, and environmental pollution.

What tests will I need?

If you are a smoker, have a cough that produces phlegm and suffer from shortness of breath, you may have COPD. Your doctor will need to confirm this by examining you.

You may be asked to blow into a machine called a spirometer which measures how well your lungs are working.

Your doctor may also refer you to a chest specialist for an x-ray or further tests.

Can COPD be treated?

There is no cure for COPD but a lot can be done to relieve your symptoms. Stopping smoking at any stage of the disease will help reduce your cough and phlegm.

Drugs called bronchodilators open up the narrowed airways and make it easier for you to breathe. There are two types of bronchodilator: anticholinergics such as aclidinium, glycopyrronium, ipratropium, tiotropium and umeclidinium; and beta-agonists such as formoterol, indacaterol, olodaterol, salbutamol, salmeterol, terbutaline and vilanterol. Your doctor may give you these drugs as an inhaler, or in some cases, as a tablet or syrup.

If the drug is inhaled, it is more effective if used with a plastic bubble, called a spacer (eg, Able Spacer®, Aerochamber Plus® [discontinued]). If required, a higher dose of these drugs can be given using a nebuliser. In this case the doctor will give you a prescription for nebules, small plastic ampoules containing a liquid form of the drug - the nebules are opened and placed into a machine called a nebuliser which converts the liquid into a fine mist which is breathed in through a mask attached to the machine.

In some cases, steroid inhalers are used to reduce inflammation and make it easier to breathe. Examples include beclometasone, budesonide and fluticasone.

Other medicines such as aminophylline and theophylline may also help reduce symptoms. If your COPD is severe, your doctor might prescribe a tablet containing a newer medicine called roflumilast.

You may be prescribed a combination of drugs for your condition and you may need guidance from your doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist.

COPD can be made worse by chest infections so, if you have a fever or your phlegm becomes brown or green, you should see your doctor. A course of antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the infection.

Ask your doctor for a 'flu vaccination every autumn. This will reduce the possibility of chest infections.

Help yourself

  • Try to stop smoking completely and avoid passive smoking
  • Avoid contact with anyone who has a cold or a chest infection and wash your hands often
  • If you think you have a chest infection, see your doctor
  • Ask your doctor for a 'flu vaccination every autumn
  • Try to do some gentle exercise every day. Ask your doctor for advice
  • Dry air can make you cough - make the air more moist with a humidifier or by placing a bowl of water on a window ledge
  • Breathing through your mouth can make you dehydrated, so try to drink plenty of fluids such as water and fruit juices
  • Try to eat little and often, eg, five small meals rather than three large ones. A full stomach after a large meal will make it more difficult for you to breathe

Further information available from:

Breathe Easy
British Lung Foundation
73-75 Goswell Road
London EC1V 7ER
Helpline: 03000 030 555 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm)

Fact sheet provided by MIMS

Date last reviewed: July 2014

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