Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

UPDATED ON: 8 Apr 2024, 19:26 PM
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What is Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used for a group of diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. When not treated on time, COPD can progressively impair lung function, leading to breathing difficulties. However, lifestyle changes and medication can help manage symptoms.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
COPD can cause breathing problems! Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a progressive lung condition marked by airflow restriction, making it difficult to breathe. Typically triggered by prolonged exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke, air pollution, or occupational dust, COPD includes conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema destroys lung air sacs, hindering outward airflow, while bronchitis inflames and constricts bronchial tubes, fostering mucus buildup. Many COPD patients have both of these conditions. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports COPD claims over 3 million lives annually, with an estimated 392 million people living with COPD.

Causes of Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is primarily caused by long-term exposure to irritants that damage the lungs and airways. Tobacco smoking is the leading cause, responsible for around 70 percent of COPD cases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke gradually inflame and narrow the airways, making breathing difficult over time. Apart from this, here are other causes of COPD:

  • In addition to smoking, secondhand smoke exposure also contributes to COPD development.
  • Occupational exposure to dust, chemicals, and fumes in certain industries such as mining, construction, and manufacturing can increase the risk of COPD by causing damage to the lungs and inflammation.
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic condition that impairs the body’s ability to protect the lungs from damage, making people more vulnerable to COPD.
  • Respiratory infections, such as recurrent pneumonia and bronchitis, can contribute to the development of COPD, particularly in people with underlying lung conditions or compromised immune systems.
  • If you had a history of asthma in childhood, then you are also at risk of developing COPD.

Key Facts About Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Major Symptoms
  • Persistent coughing with mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness and discomfort
  • Fatigue
  • Respiratory infection
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Swelling in ankles, feet, and legs
Necessary Health Tests
  • Medical history
  • Physical examination
  • Tests, including X-rays, CT scan, spirometry, etc


  • Bronchodilators
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Antibiotics
  • Oxygen support
  • Vaccination

Rehabilitation program

Symptoms of Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) symptoms often don’t show up until significant damage to the lungs has occurred. Since COPD primarily affects the respiratory system, one may experience these symptoms:

  • Persistent coughing with mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness and discomfort
  • Fatigue

Without treatment, when COPD advances, symptoms intensify, leading to frequent respiratory infections and exacerbations. Cyanosis, characterised by a bluish tint in the lips or fingernails, may develop due to decreased oxygen levels in the blood. In severe cases, unintended weight loss and swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs can also occur.

When to see a doctor for COPD?

It’s advisable to see a doctor if you’re experiencing persistent symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, or wheezing, particularly if they interfere with daily activities. Seek medical attention immediately if you’re experiencing these symptoms and have a history of smoking or exposure to lung irritants, to prevent further COPD complications.

Diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Diagnosing COPD typically involves medical history, physical examination, and various tests.

1. Medical history

To diagnose COPD, a thorough medical history is crucial. Your healthcare provider will ask you about the symptoms you might be experiencing, such as chronic cough, shortness of breath, and exposure to risk factors like smoking or occupational hazards. Knowing your symptoms may help doctors understand your lungs and overall health.

2. Physical examination

Knowing the medical history and symptoms, conducting a comprehensive physical examination is pivotal. This includes listening to your lungs and heart, checking your blood pressure and pulse, examining your nose and throat, and checking your feet and ankles for swelling.


  • Spirometry: Several tests play a crucial role in confirming COPD. A simple test, called spirometry, measures lung function by assessing airflow obstruction. It helps determine the severity of obstruction and the presence of reversible airway limitation, common in asthma.
  • Imaging tests: Imaging studies such as chest X-rays or CT can help evaluate the extent of lung damage, detect complications like emphysema or bronchiectasis, and rule out the condition causing symptoms.
  • Other tests: Further tests may include arterial blood gas analysis to assess oxygenation levels and pulmonary function tests to evaluate lung capacity comprehensively.

Once diagnosed, COPD is staged based on severity using criteria like the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) system. This staging guides treatment decisions and prognosis estimation.

Treatment of Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a progressive respiratory condition characterised by airflow limitation and breathing difficulties. Its treatment strategies aim to alleviate symptoms, improve lung function, and enhance the overall quality of life for individuals with COPD.

1. Medications

  • Bronchodilators, such as beta-agonists and anticholinergics, help relax the muscles around the airways, making breathing easier.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs, such as corticosteroids, reduce airway inflammation and swelling, thereby relieving symptoms and preventing exacerbations.
  • In cases of acute exacerbations or bacterial infections, antibiotics may be prescribed to combat respiratory infections.
  • When blood oxygen is low (hypoxemia), oxygen support is provided to improve oxygen levels and reduce the workload on the heart.
  • Vaccinations against influenza and pneumonia are crucial preventive measures to reduce the risk of respiratory infections, which can exacerbate COPD symptoms.

2. Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation plays a vital role in COPD management, focusing on improving physical conditioning, respiratory function, and overall well-being. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs typically involve exercise training, education on COPD management, nutritional counseling, and psychosocial support. These interventions aim to enhance exercise tolerance, reduce symptoms, and optimise daily functioning.

3. Surgery

Surgical interventions may be considered in severe cases or when medication and other therapies fail to adequately manage symptoms. Surgical options include lung volume reduction surgery to remove damaged lung tissue or lung transplantation for end-stage COPD.

Lifestyle tips and home remedies to manage COPD

To manage COPD effectively, lifestyle changes are crucial.

  • To feel better and slow the damage, quitting smoking is paramount, as it exacerbates symptoms.
  • Regular exercise improves lung function and overall well-being; even light activities like walking can be beneficial.
  • A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins helps maintain a healthy weight and boosts immunity.
  • Avoiding pollutants and respiratory irritants such as dust, smoke, and strong fumes is essential.
  • Keep yourself properly hydrated because hydration helps thin mucus, making it easier to clear the airways.
  • In addition, practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises or yoga can alleviate stress and improve breathing patterns.
  • Regular check-ups with healthcare providers ensure proper monitoring and management of the condition.

Following these lifestyle changes can significantly enhance the quality of life for individuals living with COPD!

Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) Related FAQs

1. How does COPD affect a person?

COPD gradually damages the lungs, leading to difficulty in breathing. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. It can impact daily activities, decrease quality of life, and lead to frequent respiratory infections.

2. Can I live a long life with COPD?

While COPD is a progressive disease, with proper management and lifestyle changes, many individuals can live long and fulfilling lives. Quitting smoking, following treatment plans, staying active, and avoiding triggers can help slow its progression and improve quality of life.

3. What is COPD's main cause?

Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, accounting for about 80-90 percent of cases. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust, can also contribute to the development of COPD.

4. What are the complications of living with COPD?

Complications of COPD include frequent respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis, exacerbations (flare-ups) of symptoms, which can be life-threatening, and complications related to decreased lung function such as heart problems and respiratory failure. COPD can also impact mental health, leading to anxiety and depression.

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