What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

What is it? 

COPD is one of the most common lung diseases which causes difficulty with breathing.  It is characterised by permanent narrowing of the airways which causes difficulty inhaling and exhaling.  Many people who have COPD will not have a diagnosis and therefore current UK figures do not provide the full extent of numbers.  At present, there are around 900,000 people diagnosed with COPD however, it is believed to be a lot more. COPD is a chronic disease which means it worsens over time. 


COPD can be broken down into two separate types, bronchitis and emphysema: 

Bronchitis is when the lining of the airways become inflamed and irritated causing them to become narrowed and obstructing the flow of air in and out.  In addition, as the lining is irritated it causes the lung to produce more mucus than usual which results in chronic coughing to try and clear the airways.    

Emphysema is when the tiny air sacs inside the lungs become damaged, they can breakdown creating much larger air sacs.  When this happens, it reduces the overall surface area of the lung and reduces the amount of oxygen which is passed into the bloodstream. 

 Most people who have a diagnosis of COPD have both emphysema and bronchitis, hence the collective term COPD. 


What causes COPD? 

  •  The main cause of COPD is smoking. Individuals who smoke or have smoked are at a much greater risk of developing COPD this is because the chemicals from the cigarettes irritate and inflame the airway linings, causing narrowing and destruction of air sacs.   
  • Air pollution has also been linked to symptoms of COPD however, at present the evidence is not robust.   
  • COPD is thought to be a genetic for around 1 in 100 people. 
  • Breathing in certain types of dust and chemicals within the workplace has also been linked to lung damage including carbon monoxide, asbestos, ammonia and dust. 


Symptoms of COPD 

  • Shortness of breath 
  • Cough which produces mucus 
  • Wheezing 
  • Tightness in the chest 
  • Fatigue 

Many on these symptoms will impact on day to day life and cause difficulties with mobility along-side limiting your ability to complete routine tasks.  This can lead to an impact on mental health causing feelings of anxiety and depression. 



  • The most effective and fast-acting treatment is to quit smoking.  Although it won’t reverse the damage already caused on the lungs, it will stop any further damage. Stopping smoking is recommended for anyone at any stage of their COPD. Please see the useful service pages for advice on how to stop smoking. Click here to view. 
  • Inhalers can be used to help relax the airways making them wider.  There are different types of inhalers based on the extent of your difficulties with breathing.   
  • Medications can be prescribed to reduce the inflammation in the lining of the airways and reduce the mucus build-up. 
  • Oxygen therapy either long-term or ambulation oxygen therapy can help those who have a low level of oxygen in their blood. 
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation is a well-established programme which helps to increase exercise tolerance, provide self-management techniques, improve quality of life and mental wellbeing. 
  • In rare cases, surgery is performed such as a lung transplant. 









copd ask the ot

1 comment

Jenny Buckley

Another cause which has been omitted in the list is that chronic asthma can do long term damage to the airways resulting in copd. Important for asthmatics to be informed about this as taking preventer inhalers regularly can significantly reduce inflammation in the airways and thereby reduce the risk of copd developing.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published

Request a brochure

Request a brochure