What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a common lung disease which affects an estimated 64 million people worldwide [1].

So what exactly is COPD? First of all, lets look at the word itself:

Chronic: COPD is known as a ‘chronic’ condition, this means it is persistent and has long-lasting effects.

Obstructive: The main characteristic of COPD is a blockage (or obstruction) of airflow in and out of the lungs.

Pulmonary: COPD affects the lungs, but also has other effects on the body

Disease: COPD is a label given to a group of respiratory diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

The reduction in airflow to the lungs reduces their effectiveness, this is why COPD patients feel short of breath.

COPD patients may suffer from an exacerbation – a short term worsening in their main symptoms (shortness of breath, cough and phlegm production). Exacerbations can be caused by infections or environmental triggers.

Who gets COPD? Common risk factors


> Smoking is the main risk factor for developing COPD, this includes exposure to second hand smoke
> Occupational exposure – workers in the mining and chemicals industries are at risk from the dust and vapours, especially if protective measures are not taken
> Air pollution – there is some evidence that air pollution, especially in urban areas, can be a risk factor for developing COPD

However, smoking is the main risk factor with over 80% of COPD cases being caused by smoking. People who don’t smoke rarely develop COPD.

Diagnosing COPD

There are various medical tests and investigations used to help in the diagnosis of COPD.

Spirometry: Otherwise known as ‘breathing and blowing’ tests. These tests may show an obstruction in airflow which is characteristic of COPD. Spirometry can also be used to grade the severity of COPD based upon the extent of airflow obstruction

Chest x-ray: There may be signs of COPD on a chest x-ray or a chest x-ray may be used to exclude other lung diseases.

Blood tests: Various blood tests (for example a Full Blood Count – FBC) may be performed to exclude any other causes of breathlessness such as anaemia.


[1] – http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs315/en/index.html