Around 115,000 people are diagnosed with COPD in the UK each year.
To mark this year’s World COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) Day on November 17, expert Eluned Hughes, Head of Health Advice at the British Lung Foundation, answers the most commonly asked questions about the condition.
What is COPD?
COPD is a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to empty air out of your body because the airways have become narrowed. Two of these conditions are chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.
Symptoms of COPD can begin with a cough that lasts a long time and include getting short of breath easily. Such as when walking or doing everyday tasks like housework, wheezing in cold weather and producing more phlegm than usual.
Diagnosis involves a simple test called spirometry, which involves blowing hard into a machine. This measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs and how fast.
What causes it?
COPD mostly develops because of long-term damage to your lungs from breathing in a harmful substance. This is often cigarette smoke, as well as smoke from other sources and air pollution. Jobs where people are exposed to dust, fumes and chemicals can also contribute to developing COPD.
You’re most likely to develop COPD if you’re over 35 and are, or have been, a smoker or had chest problems as a child. However, this won’t be the case for everyone.
The British Lung Foundation has found that 1 in 5 people (21%) diagnosed with the condition had symptoms when they were under the age of 45 and one in 10 people with the condition have never smoked.
COPD can run in families, so if your parents had chest problems then your own risk is higher.
What treatment is available?
While there is no cure for COPD, the condition can be managed to reduce the risk of flare ups and help people breathe more easily.
This involves having a self-management plan to help people keep well. Such as having an annual flu vaccination and a one-off pneumococcal vaccine. Being supported to stop smoking if they smoke, and taking part in an exercise programme.
Depending on how severe someone’s COPD is, they may be offered medications such as a bronchodilator.
This is inhaled to help open up the airways. Some people are also offered steroid inhalers, usually in combination with a bronchodilator. It’s important for people to take their inhalers everyday as prescribed to reduce the risk of a flare up.
Some people benefit from oxygen therapy if their blood oxygen levels are low. People who need to be admitted to hospital after a flare up may need non-invasive ventilation. This involves wearing a mask connected to a machine that pushes air into your lungs.
A small number of people with emphysema (a type of COPD) may be offered surgery. Lung volume reduction is an operation to remove damaged parts of the lungs or block them off to reduce the amount of air trapped in them. In the worst cases of COPD, a lung transplant may be needed but this is not common.
Is air pollution dangerous?
Yes. Spikes in air pollution pose an immediate threat to people living with any lung condition. This can cause symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and breathlessness to worsen. It can also make flare-ups more frequent and severe.
Research funded by the British Lung Foundation shows a link between high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems presenting at hospitals and GP surgeries. Main roads, junctions, bus stations and car parks are all areas of high traffic pollution and should be avoided as much as possible.
Is exercise a good idea?
Certainly – in fact, an exercise programme called Pulmonary Rehabilitation (PR), is one of the methods used to help control symptoms.
PR is designed specifically for people diagnosed with lung conditions and comprises a team of trained health care professionals who provide a physical exercise plan, information on looking after the body and lungs, and advice on managing COPD. Courses are held in groups in local hospitals, community halls, leisure centres and health centres and last around eight weeks.
There are many other ways to be active however, including joining an exercise class, walking, gardening or taking up sports and activities like dancing or yoga. All are great ways to strengthen the lungs. The British Lung Foundation has a free exercise handbook here:
What type of diet is good for COPD?
With a lung condition, eating a balanced diet with lots of variety can help control symptoms. Fruits and vegetables have vitamins and minerals that support your immune system to help you fight off chest infections. Starchy carbohydrates such as brown pasta or rice, give your body energy for breathing.
Proteins like chicken and oats, keep muscles, including the chest muscles, strong, while dairy foods are a good source of calcium and vitamin D for healthy bones.
This is important if you take long-term steroids as these increase the risk of brittle bones or osteoporosis. Finally, oils contain vitamins A and E, which are important for fighting infections.
It’s very important to drink plenty of fluids too – six to eight glasses of fluid a day. This helps maintain hydration and keeps mucus moving which helps prevent chest infections.
If you are worried about breathlessness, you can take an online test via the British Lung Foundation to see if you should get it checked out at: https://www.blf.org.uk/breathtestpress