Our thanks to the British Lung Foundation (BLF) for their contributiion to our on-air report (which you can hear via our radio player further down this page). Click here to visit the BLF website for information and support for anyone affected by lung disease.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the UK's fifth biggest killer but a lot of people haven't heard of it and they ignore the symptoms until it's too late.
COPD is a term used for a number of conditions; including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
COPD leads to damaged airways in the lungs, causing them to become narrower and making it harder for air to get in and out of the lungs. .
The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Once you give up smoking, you gradually reduce the chances of getting COPD - and you slow down its progress if you already have it. Occupational factors, such as coal dust, and some inherited problems can also cause COPD. Whether pollution is a factor is under investigation.
Cough, phlegm and shortness of breath can be symptoms of COPD Some people may only notice their symptoms in winter, or they might put them down to bronchitis or 'smoker's cough'. This means that they might not seek help at an early stage of the disease. The sooner people seek treatment the better.
The best way to confirm diagnosis is through spirometry. This is a simple breathing test which you can usually do at your GP's surgery. You just have to blow into a machine. This will indicate whether your airways have narrowed. In some cases you may need more detailed tests and a referral to hospital.
The symptoms of COPD vary depending on how bad it is, and how people have adapted to their problems. In mild cases, symptoms like a cough, phlegm and shortness of breath may only be present during the winter or after a cold. In more severe cases, you may be short of breath every day. With more severe COPD, normal activities can become more difficult.
COPD. can lead to feelings of anxiety because of breathlessness. People with it may reduce their activities to avoid becoming breathless. But by reducing activity levels you become less fit and therefore get breathless even sooner when you try to do any activity. People with COPD may adapt their lifestyles to reduce breathlessness - but keeping as fit as possible is important. Some hospitals run pulmonary rehabilitation courses. These programmes involve exercise and education. Pulmonary rehabilitation improves your exercise performance, your health and your quality of life.
COPD cannot be cured once you have it, but treatments may help.
Stopping smoking will help improve the cough and phlegm. It's likely that you will be given medicines - usually by inhalers - that make the airways wider. These are known as bronchodilators. If your main symptom is breathlessness, then you may benefit from a bronchodilator. There are different types of bronchodilators which work in different ways and they can be of benefit if they are used together. You may also be prescribed other medications. Nebulisers can provide bigger doses of the medicines but inhalers are often effective. What you are given depends on how you respond to treatment.
If you become suddenly more short of breath and your symptoms get worse, you may be experiencing what is known as an 'exacerbation'. Your doctor may give you a short course of steroids for a few days. Some people take a steroid inhaler regularly but your doctor will decide if this is necessary for you.
Exacerbations are common in COPD, but taking your treatment regularly may help to reduce how often they happen. Always seek treatment for any exacerbation as soon as you can. A flu vaccination every autumn is also worthwhile, as flu can cause exacerbations.
Try to keep as mobile as you can, look after your weight and eat a balanced diet.
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