Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.
- emphysema – damage to the air sacs in the lungs
- chronic bronchitis – long-term inflammation of the airways
COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke. Many people do not realise they have it.
The breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time and can limit your normal activities, although treatment can help keep the condition under control.
Symptoms of COPD
The main symptoms of COPD are:
- shortness of breath, particularly when you're active
- a persistent chesty cough with phlegm – some people may dismiss this as just a "smoker's cough"
- frequent chest infections
- persistent wheezing
Without treatment, the symptoms usually get progressively worse. There may also be periods when they get suddenly worse, known as a flare-up or exacerbation.
Find out more about the symptoms of COPD.
When to get medical advice
See a GP if you have persistent symptoms of COPD, particularly if you're over 35 and smoke or used to smoke.
Do not ignore the symptoms. If they're caused by COPD, it's best to start treatment as soon as possible, before your lungs become significantly damaged.
The GP will ask about your symptoms and whether you smoke or have smoked in the past. They can organise a breathing test to help diagnose COPD and rule out other lung conditions, such as asthma.
Find out more about how COPD is diagnosed.
Causes of COPD
COPD happens when the lungs become inflamed, damaged and narrowed. The main cause is smoking, although the condition can sometimes affect people who have never smoked.
The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more you smoke and the longer you've smoked.
Some cases of COPD are caused by long-term exposure to harmful fumes or dust. Others are the result of a rare genetic problem that makes the lungs more vulnerable to damage.
Find out more about the causes of COPD.
Treatments for COPD
The damage to the lungs caused by COPD is permanent, but treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition.
- stopping smoking – if you have COPD and you smoke, this is the most important thing you can do
- inhalers and medicines – to help make breathing easier
- pulmonary rehabilitation – a specialised programme of exercise and education
- surgery or a lung transplant – although this is only an option for a very small number of people
Outlook for COPD
The outlook for COPD varies from person to person. The condition cannot be cured or reversed, but for many people, treatment can help keep it under control so it does not severely limit their daily activities.
But in some people, COPD may continue to get worse despite treatment, eventually having a significant impact on their quality of life and leading to life-threatening problems.
Social care and support guide
- need help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability
- care for someone regularly because they're ill, elderly or disabled – including family members
The social care and support guide explains your options and where you can get support.
COPD is largely a preventable condition. You can significantly reduce your chances of developing it if you avoid smoking.
If you already smoke, stopping can help prevent further damage to your lungs before it starts to cause troublesome symptoms.
If you think you need help to stop smoking, visit Quit smoking for free advice and support.
You may also want to talk to a GP about the stop smoking treatments available.
Page last reviewed: 11 April 2023
Next review due: 11 April 2026