Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
The biggest single cause of COPD is smoking.
If you stop smoking, your chances of developing COPD begin to fall. If you already have COPD, stopping smoking can lead to an improvement in your symptoms and mean it progresses more slowly.
You are also more likely to get COPD:
- if your job exposes you to certain dusts or fumes
- from environmental factors, such as air pollution
- from inherited problems - an inherited shortage of a protein called alpha antitrypsin that helps protect your lungs from the effects of smoking may increase your risk, but fewer than one in 100 people with COPD have this
Allergies and asthma have also been suggested to increase your chances of getting COPD, but the evidence is not conclusive.
At first, you may not notice any symptoms of COPD. The condition progresses gradually, starting with either a phlegmy cough or breathlessness. Many people developing COPD do not see their doctor at this stage, but the earlier you get treatment the better.
As the disease progresses symptoms can vary but they include:
- chronic cough (often the first symptom)
- a gradual increase in breathlessness with physical exertion
- regularly coughing up phlegm
- weight loss
- waking up at night as a result of breathlessness caused by lying flat
- feeling tired
It is rare to get chest pains or cough up blood if you have COPD - if this happens you may either have a different disease or another disease as well as COPD.
You may find that your symptoms are worse in winter. It is common to have two or more flare-ups a year. This is when your symptoms are particularly severe.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. If your doctor thinks you have COPD, he or she will ask you about the problems you have had with your chest and how long you have had them. He or she will usually examine your chest with a stethoscope, listening for noises such as wheezing or crackles.
Your doctor may also perform a lung test called a spirometry test. You will be asked to blow into a device that measures how much and how fast you can force air out from your lungs. Different lung problems produce different results so this test helps to separate COPD from other chest conditions such as asthma.
Other tests you might have include:
- a blood test to look for anaemia or signs of infection
- a chest X-ray to see if your lungs show signs of COPD, and to exclude other lung diseases
- a CT scan to build up a three-dimensional picture of your lungs to rule out other diseases
- an electrocardiogram (ECG) to measure the electrical impulses from your heart to check if you have heart and/or lung disease
- an echocardiogram to see if your heart is working as it should
- a pulse oximeter to monitor the oxygen concentration in your bloodstream to see if you need oxygen therapy
- an antitrypsin deficiency test - you may need this if your COPD developed when you were 40 or younger or if you don't smoke
- keeping up your fluid levels by drinking enough water and using steam or a humidifier to help keep your airways moist - this can help reduce the thickness of mucus and phlegm that are produced
- exercising to keep moving and eating a healthy diet to help your heart and lungs
- having a flu vaccination each year, as COPD makes you particularly vulnerable to the complications of flu, such as pneumonia (bacterial infection of the lungs)
- having a vaccination for the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium that causes pneumonia
You have the best chance of preventing COPD if you don't smoke.
If your job exposes you to dusts or fumes, it's important to take care at work and use any relevant personal protective equipment, such as face masks, to help prevent you from inhaling any harmful substances.
This information was published by Bupa Group's Health Content Team and has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. To the best of their knowledge the information is current and based on reputable sources of medical evidence, however Bupa (Asia) Limited makes no representation or warranty as to the completeness or accuracy of the Content.
The information on this page, and any information on third party websites referred to on this page, is provided as a guide only. It should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical advice, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. Bupa (Asia) Limited is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of, or reliance on, the information.
Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. Last updated August 2017.
Talk to us
Contact our health management consultant to get details and advice.
Mon-Fri 9am-9pm (except public holidays)