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Innovations in Patient Care Q4 2023

Why COPD is a national concern and how to recognise it

Female Community Nurse Visits Senior Man At Home
Female Community Nurse Visits Senior Man At Home
iStock / Getty Images Plus / monkeybusinessimages

Nick Hopkinson

Medical Director, Asthma + Lung UK and respiratory consultant

Despite being the third biggest killer in the world, most people don’t know what chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is and wouldn’t be able to recognise the tell-tale signs.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of incurable lung conditions, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which make it difficult to expel air from the lungs. Unlike asthma, where people will typically only experience symptoms when they are exposed to a trigger, someone with COPD will have permanently narrowed airways.

Signs and symptoms of COPD

COPD can be a ticking timebomb as people tend to ignore the key symptoms, which are straightforward: a persistent cough, mucus, wheezing and breathlessness. Unfortunately, there’s this belief that frequent breathlessness is a normal part of getting older, which it is not, and people quietly withdraw from life. Even with treatment, a severe flare-up can be fatal. Yet, around 500,000 people are living undiagnosed with COPD.

Early diagnosis goes a long way

Awareness of COPD, which affects 1.4 million people in England alone, is remarkably low, with 44% of people surveyed by Asthma + Lung UK revealing they hadn’t heard of the condition until they received a diagnosis.

Asthma + Lung UK is urging people not to ignore symptoms because the sooner someone gets a diagnosis, the more likely they are to live a longer, fuller life. This is particularly pertinent at this time of year when the NHS is under extra pressure, and people with untreated lung conditions are at increased risk of becoming seriously ill with respiratory infections like Covid or flu.

COPD currently kills almost 27,000
people in the UK annually.

COPD risk factors

COPD currently kills almost 27,000 people in the UK annually. Nine out of ten people with COPD have a history of smoking, which is why Asthma + Lung UK is ardently backing the Government’s plans to create a smoke-free generation. This could, in time, significantly reduce the number of people who develop lung disease.

The proposed increase in the age of sale for tobacco products is fantastic news for lung health as cigarette smoke is the major cause of COPD. Childhood deprivation and exposure to occupational dust fumes and chemicals are risk factors, too.

Helpful COPD management

The first line of attack is to give up smoking. People with the illness should also consult their doctor about a personalised COPD plan and get an annual flu jab plus regular pneumococcal and Covid-19 vaccines. They should also have an annual inhaler check and ask about pulmonary rehabilitation — an exercise and breathing programme that helps people live well with the illness.

For more information on managing COPD, visit or call 0300 222 5800.

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