COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a condition where there is narrowing of the airways and excess mucus production, as well as damage to lung tissue making it harder for oxygen to get from the air, through the lungs to your blood stream. Other names for this condition include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Unlike asthma, in COPD most of the airway narrowing is fixed. This means it may not respond fully to drugs which open up the airway.
COPD makes you breathless. It can make you cough, producing clear or white sputum. Some patients cough up sputum every day. It can also make you wheezy.
In most patients, COPD is due to smoking. Even if someone has smoked in the earlier part of their life, they may not start to experience symptoms of COPD until they are older, sometimes having stopped smoking.
A few patients with COPD have alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. This is a genetic (inherited) condition that makes you more likely to develop COPD. Patients with alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency who smoke develop COPD at an earlier age. Some patients with the deficiency can develop COPD in later life even if they do not smoke.
If you are a smoker, the most important part of treatment for COPD is to stop smoking. The next most important treatment for COPD is inhalers which deliver drugs to the lungs. It is important to use a spacer (like a large plastic tube) to help get the medicine all the way into your lungs without it being deposited in your mouth and throat. There are two main groups of inhalers. Preventers are taken regularly to help keep your COPD under control. Relievers are taken as and when you have symptoms during the day. Most of the time, you should not need to use your relievers very often. If you are using more than two reliever inhalers per month you should see your doctor as your treatment may need to be changed. Nebulisers can occasionally be useful if your COPD is severe, or when you are having a flare up or chest infection.
Some patients with severe COPD need long-term oxygen therapy (LTOT). This is worn for at least 15 hours per day, and is supplied at your home via a box that plugs into mains electricity and concentrates oxygen from the air. If you have COPD and have low blood oxygen levels, LTOT can improve not just the quality but also the length of your life. If you have oxygen at home you must not smoke as there is a risk of the oxygen combusting causing an explosion and fire.
If you have COPD, a cold or chest infection can make you more wheezy and breathless. It is important to see you GP promptly as you may need to increase your treatment for a short while whilst you recover from the infection.
It is important to have a flu jab every year, and to have a vaccination against pneumonia every ten years.