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Managing COPD: the causes, symptoms and treatments

Man coughing with painful lungs

Anyone living with a lung condition, will know how debilitating it can be and what an impact this can have on your day-to-day life. According to a report by Asthma + Lung UK (Investing in lung research), lung conditions are the third biggest cause of death in the UK, after cancer and cardiovascular disease. Knowing how to spot the early signs, manage your symptoms and access a fast diagnosis and treatment will help to give you control of your health.

Common lung conditions

There are several types of lung conditions, the most common are listed below:

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is where air cannot get out of the lungs easily (the airflow is obstructed). COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke or have smoked. Jobs where people are exposed to dust fumes and chemicals also increase the risk of COPD, as well as having chest trouble or asthma in childhood.

COPD includes long-term (chronic) bronchitis and emphysema:

Bronchitis means the airways are inflamed and narrowed. People with bronchitis often cough up phlegm. Bronchitis can be a short-term (acute) infection, but for people with COPD, bronchitis is long-term (chronic). You can read more about acute bronchitis on the NHS website.

Emphysema affects the tiny air sacs at the end of the airways in your lungs, where oxygen is taken up into your bloodstream. These air sacs break down and the lungs become baggy and full of bigger holes which trap air, making it harder to breathe.

These conditions can often occur together. In both conditions the airways become narrowed. This makes it harder to move air in and out as you breathe, and your lungs are less able to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.

What causes (COPD)?

COPD usually develops because of long-term damage to your lungs from breathing in a harmful substance, usually cigarette smoke, as well as smoke from other sources and air pollution. Jobs where people are exposed to dust, fumes and chemicals can also contribute to developing COPD.

You’re most likely to develop COPD if you’re over 35 and are, or have been, a smoker or had chest problems as a child.

Some people are more affected than others by breathing in noxious materials. COPD does seem to run in families, so if your parents had chest problems then your own risk is higher.

What’s the difference between COPD and asthma?

With COPD, your airways have become narrowed permanently – inhaled medication can help to open them up to some extent. With asthma, the narrowing of your airways comes and goes, often when you’re exposed to a trigger – something that irritates your airways – such as dust, pollen or tobacco smoke. Inhaled medication can open your airways fully, prevent and relieve symptoms by relaxing your airways.

So, if your breathlessness and other symptoms are much better on some days than others, or if you often wake up in the night feeling wheezy, it may be that you have asthma.

Because the symptoms are similar and because people who have asthma as children can develop COPD in later life, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the two conditions. Some people have both COPD and asthma.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

Symptoms of this lung condition include:

  • Getting short of breath easily when you do everyday things such as going for a walk or doing housework
  • Having a cough that lasts a long time
  • Wheezing in cold weather
  • Producing more sputum or phlegm than usual
  • You might get these symptoms all the time, or they might appear or get worse when you have an infection or breathe in smoke or fumes
  • If you have COPD that has a severe impact on your breathing, your appetite is affected, you lose weight and find that your ankles swell

What are the treatments for COPD?

  • Having treatment and support to stop smoking
  • Having a flu jab every year and a one-off pneumonia vaccination
  • An exercise programme called pulmonary rehabilitation if your breathlessness stops you doing things
  • Having your own self-management plan
  • Identifying and managing your other health problems, because most people with COPD also have other long-term conditions
  • Taking medicine or combinations of medications to improve breathlessness and help prevent flare-ups

How can I manage my COPD?

It is important to take good care of yourself if you have COPD. There are lots of ways that you can help manage your condition, and there is lots of information on the Asthma + Lung UK website. Below are just a few things you can do:

Sleep and rest

Make sure you sleep well and get enough rest every day. This will help with your energy levels. For advice about how to get a good night’s sleep, have a look at the NHS' website article on how to get to sleep. Talk to your health care professional if that doesn’t help.

Ask for help if you need it

Ask your health care professional about ways you can adapt your home to help you move around more easily. An occupational therapist and your local council can help you with this.

Be aware of your symptoms

If your ankles swell, tell your health care professional. Medicines can help reduce this. But many people with COPD have other conditions, and leg swelling, or a rapid heartbeat can be a sign of a heart condition.

Access our private GP service

One in five people experience symptoms of a respiratory condition for over a year before seeking a diagnosis (Investing in lung research) so if you’re experiencing the early signs of a respiratory or lung condition, our expert male and female private GPs can discuss any concerns you have about your health. Our Private GP services will also arrange any tests, scans or follow-up appointments.

Book your 25-minute private GP appointment today using our online booking system

Published on 17 June 2023