What is COPD and
what are the symptoms?

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) causes difficulties with breathing. The symptoms, most often caused by chronic bronchitis or emphysema, lead some patients to describe COPD as a ‘squeezing feeling in their chest, almost like an elephant is sitting on it’1. With chronic bronchitis, the tubes (bronchi) that take air in and out of the lungs become inflamed, causing excessive mucus production and coughing. The presence of inflammation and mucus causes the bronchi to narrow. This not only limits the normal amount of air from reaching the lungs but also prevents them from fully deflating, leaving lots of residual air in the lungs2.
Illustration of lungs
With chronic bronchitis, the tubes (bronchi) that take air in and out of the lungs become inflamed, causing excessive mucus production and coughing. The presence of inflammation and mucus causes the bronchi to narrow. This not only limits the normal amount of air from reaching the lungs but also prevents them from fully deflating, leaving lots of residual air in the lungs2.
Effect of chronic bronchitis on the bronchial tubes
With emphysema, the presence of inflammation in the alveoli (air sacs) reduces their flexibility. In some cases they collapse, making it difficult for air to enter and leave the lungs. As a result they contain more air than normal, a state known as hyperinflation. The combination of hyperinflation and the extra effort needed to breathe results in the sensation of breathlessness3.
Effect of Emphysema on the Alveolar

What causes COPD?

 

One of the main causes of COPD is prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke, especially if the smoke is inhaled. However, breathing in second hand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes and dust from the environment or workplace can also cause COPD⁴.

 

These inhaled particles cause the mucus glands that line the bronchi to produce more mucus than normal. The particles also trigger inflammation, which cause the walls of the bronchi to thicken and swell. Environmental factors and genetics may also play a part in the development of COPD⁴⁻⁵.

Hand holding a lit cigarette
Smoking
COPD most commonly occurs in people aged 40 years of age and above who have a history of smoking6. Although not everybody who smokes develops the lung disease, the majority of people with COPD either currently smoke or have smoked in the past⁷.
Skyline of factory chimneys with clouds of smoke billowing out creating air pollution
Air pollution
Outdoor sources of pollution such as exhausts, flammable gases or fumes may cause COPD. Heavy or long-term contact with secondhand smoke or other lung irritants in the home, including household detergents, strong odors or dust, may also cause COPD⁶.
Angle grinder creating sparks and exposure to poor air quality in the workplace

Work environment

COPD can also develop in people who have had long-term exposure to chemicals, dust, or fumes in the workplace⁷.

Sunny family portrait of 4 women of descending age

Hereditary

Genetics can play a part in the development of COPD, even if you have never smoked or been exposed to pollutants for an extended period of time. Emphysema can be triggered by a deficiency in alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT), a protein that protects lungs from the harmful effects of white blood cells⁷.  

What are COPD symptoms?

 

A chronic cough that lasts for several weeks, without the presence of other illness such as cold or flu, is the first sign of COPD.³ The cough is usually worse early in the morning. Other typical symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in the chest and increased mucus (or phlegm) production⁸⁻⁹.

Coughing icon
Coughing
Wheezing icon
Wheezing
severe Coughing icon
Shortness of breath
Chest compressed icon
Chest tightness
mucus.png
Mucus production
COPD symptoms can be subtle at first. Many people may think they are just getting older and, as a result, they make small changes to their lives to compensate for the onset of symptoms. As COPD progresses, there may be other symptoms aside from a cough. These typically include tiredness, frequent colds or flu, weight loss, a reduction in lower muscle endurance and swelling in the ankles, feet or legs 8-10.

Managing shortness of breath and flare ups

 

Flare-ups are periods when COPD symptoms suddenly get worse and breathing becomes more difficult. They can be triggered by infections or other causes like the weather and stress. If you experience a flare-up, you may need to visit your doctor for an evaluation and a change of medication, or you may need to visit the hospital for observation and more vigorous treatment 11-13.

 

Find out more

I think I may have COPD, what next?

Close up of mans face contemplating disease progression

Understanding disease progression

COPD is a progressive disease categorized into 4 key stages. The symptoms you experience are likely to increase in severity over time but can be managed10.

 

Learn more about the progression of COPD

Smiling elderly gentleman and with his daughter enjoying the benefits of managing his COPD symptoms

How can I manage my COPD
Having a plan in place to manage your COPD is important. Managing your symptoms and lifestyle can help you cope with flare ups and improve your quality of life14.


Learn more about managing COPD

Two ladies sat across from one another at a desk, one explaining lung function and COPD with the use of a diagram.

Visit your doctor

Your doctor can help identify the cause of your symptoms and determine whether or not you have COPD. Although there is no cure, you can effectively manage your symptoms and slow the progression of the disease by making healthy lifestyle changes14.


Learn more

References

1. thejournal.ie. “It takes a long time to accept it, especially when you’ve caused it yourself”
http://www.thejournal.ie/copd-lung-disease-1790934-Nov2014/ 
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

2. medicinenet.com. Chronic Bronchitis
http://www.medicinenet.com/chronic_bronchitis/page3.htm 
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

3. Mayo Clinic. Emphysema
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/emphysema/basics/definition/con-20014218
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

4. Web MD. 10 FAQs About Living With COPDWhat is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
http://www.webmd.com/lung/copd/10-faqs-about-living-with-copd#2
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

5. medicinenet.com. Chronic Bronchitis
http://www.medicinenet.com/chronic_bronchitis/page3.html
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

6. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD).
Pocket Guide 2010.

7. COPD Foundation.
Available at: http://www.copdfoundation.org/What-is-COPD/Understanding-COPD/What-is-COPD.aspx#sthash.PjPozNK3.dpuf.
Accessed on 23 June 2015.

8. Healthline. 6 Signs of COPD.
http://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/copd-symptoms
Accessed on 24 June 2015.

9. Web MD. 10 Signs of a COPD Exacerbation.
http://www.webmd.com/lung/10-signs-copd-exacerbation?page=2
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

10. Healthline. COPD: Symptoms & Stages.
http://www.healthline.com/health/copd/stages#Overview1 
Accessed on 10 July 2015.

11. Web MD. COPD: Handling a Flare-Up - Topic Overview.
http://www.webmd.com/lung/copd/tc/copd-handling-a-flare-up-topic-overview
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

12. Web MD. COPD Flare-Ups - Topic Overview.
http://www.webmd.com/lung/copd/tc/copd-flare-ups-topic-overview 
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

13. Healthline. The Link Between COPD Flare-Ups and Stress Management
http://www.healthline.com/health/copd/link-between-flare-ups-stress-management
Accessed on 5 August 2015.

14. Healthline. COPD and You: Managing Your Symptoms.
http://www.healthline.com/health/copd/and-you-symptom-management#1 
Accessed on 10 July 2015.