Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for people with chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both. With COPD the airflow to the lungs is restricted (obstructed). COPD is usually caused by smoking. Symptoms include cough and breathlessness. The most important treatment is to stop smoking. Inhalers are commonly used to ease symptoms. Other treatments such as steroids, antibiotics, oxygen, and mucus-thinning (mucolytic) medicines are sometimes prescribed in more severe cases, or during a flare-up (exacerbation) of symptoms.
COPD is common. It is estimated that about three million people in the UK have COPD. However, in many of these people, the condition has not been formally diagnosed (normally these would be mild cases). This is because in the early stages, many people put up with a cough or mild breathlessness without seeing their doctor. They may only see see their doctor when symptoms get worse. COPD mainly affects people over the age of 40 and becomes more common with increasing age. The average age when it is formally diagnosed is around 67 years. It is more common in men than in women. COPD accounts for more time off work than any other illness. A flare-up (exacerbation) of COPD is one of the most common reasons for admission to hospital (1 in 8 admissions are due to COPD).
Smoking is the cause in the vast majority of cases. There is no doubt about this. The lining of the airways becomes inflamed and damaged by smoking. About 3 in 20 people who smoke one packet of cigarettes (20 cigarettes) per day, and 1 in 4 40-per-day smokers, develop COPD if they continue to smoke. For all smokers, the chances of developing COPD are between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4. Air pollution and polluted work conditions may cause some cases of COPD, or make the disease worse. The combination effect of occupational exposure to air pollutantsand smoking increases the chances of developing COPD. A small number of people have a hereditary (genetic) risk of COPD due to very rare protein deficiencies that can lead to lung, liver and blood disorders. (The condition is called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency). Less than 1 in 100 cases of COPD are due to this. However, people who have never smoked rarely develop COPD. (Passive smoking remains, however, a potential cause.)