Lung Disease: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, usually known as COPD, is a progressive respiratory disease that makes breathing increasingly difficult.


What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe chronic, progressive and largely irreversible lung diseases. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are included among these conditions, and are characterised by limitations in lung airflow. COPD leads to damaged airways in the lungs, causing them to become narrowed, and making it harder for air to get in and out.

Some types of COPD cause fibrotic (scarring) changes to the lungs. This leads to the lung air sacs being less flexible, causing difficulty in breathing. Other types of COPD can lead to excessive production of phlegm and difficulty in clearing it.

People with COPD can have flare-ups when the symptoms are worse than usual and may need extra treatment, such as additional medicine or an inhaler, at these times. If the flare-up is very bad, they may need to go into hospital.

Causes of COPD

Smoking — leading cause of COPD
Indoor air pollution (such as biomass fuel used for cooking)
Outdoor air pollution
Occupational dusts and chemicals
Frequent respiratory infections during childhood
Genetic factors — in some people, COPD can be caused by a deficiency of alpha-1 antitrypsin (ATT), a protein made in the liver

COPD Symptoms

Chronic shortness of breath that gets worse with exercise
Excessive phlegm
Chronic cough
Recurrent respiratory infections

COPD Treatment 

COPD is not curable. However, there are things you can do to manage your symptoms and prevent the condition from getting worse.


Doctors might prescribe inhalers (bronchodilators) or nebulisers (medication administered in the form of a mist inhaled into the lungs) to help control symptoms. Bronchodilators help to relax muscles to open the airway. Other medicines, such as corticosteroids, help to reduce airway inflammation and the production of mucus. Antibiotics may be given if there is an underlying infection.

Some people with more severe COPD may benefit from oxygen therapy to support their breathing at home.


Physiotherapists can advise on breathing exercises to help to clear phlegm, energy conservation strategies to control breathlessness, and self-management techniques to avoid hospital admission.

They can also discuss your continence status (lack of bladder control). People with a chronic cough can have problems controlling their urine and the therapist can advise on exercises to help to manage this.

Physiotherapists can also inform you about pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a programme of education and exercise classes aimed at teaching you about your lungs, how to exercise, and how to manage your condition.

Occupational Therapy
Occupational therapists can advise you on how to pace your daily activities so you can remain independent. They can also prescribe equipment to help you perform your everyday tasks more easily.

How to Help Yourself

Quit Smoking

Speak to your doctor about ways to help you to stop smoking.
Ensure that nobody in your house smokes.

Exercise Regularly

Exercising will help improve your overall strength and endurance.

Strategies to Avoid Breathlessness

Conserve your energy by pacing your activities.
Breathe through pursed lips to reduce breathlessness.
Move into a forward-leaning position to help ease breathlessness.

Take Action 

The following can help you live a healthier life:
Check your health screening record online (only for HPB health screening programmes)

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