Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - Institute for Respiratory Health

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

What is COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a group of long-term conditions that are related to the obstruction of airflow in the lungs. There are two main types of COPD:

  1. Emphysema is when the air sacs known as alveoli lose their elasticity therefore causing the airways to become narrow. This causes a difficulty in breathing as oxygen is more reluctantly allowed to pass through the airways.
  2. Chronic bronchitis is when the lung branches known as bronchi become inflamed and therefore increases mucus production in the airways. This phlegm causes aggressive coughing.

COPD affects one in 20 Australians over the age of 45. It is the fifth most common cause of death in Australia. The good news is COPD is often preventable and treatable.

Chronic – it’s a long-term condition and does not go away

Obstructive -your airways are narrowed, so it’s harder to breathe out quickly

Pulmonary – it affects your lungs

Disease – it’s a medical condition

COPD symptoms

Often you won’t recognise the symptoms of COPD until the later stages of the disease. This is because symptoms like shortness of breath or less able to perform everyday activities are put down to getting old. Symptoms can include:

  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
  • Chronic cough
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities and
  • Wheezing

With severe COPD, you can lose your appetite, lose weight and find that your ankles swell. Talk to your general practitioner if you do have any of these symptoms on a regular basis.

COPD causes

COPD usually develops because of long-term damage to your lungs. This can be a result of breathing in a harmful substance like cigarette smoke, as well as smoke from other sources such as air pollution. Jobs where people are exposed to dust, chemical and fumes can also contribute to developing COPD.

COPD does seem to run in families, so if your parents had issues, then your risk could be higher. There’s also a rare genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which makes people more susceptible to develop COPD at a young age.

Other risk factors include:

  • Poor nutrition – maintaining a healthy diet is important in sustaining good lung health.
  • Lack of fitness and exercise.
  • Stress – indirectly – due to the strain put on the body and inability to cope with other illnesses

COPD treatments

Early detection and management of COPD, like chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is crucial to successful treatment. Don’t wait for the symptoms to become severe because valuable treatment time could be lost. Most treatment will be focused on slowing or preventing the disease, and maintaining a good quality of life.

Strategies employed include:

  • Participating in a clinical trial
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Smoking cessation
  • Surgery
  • COPD medications – your general practitioner will work with you on a specific treatment plan based on your symptoms and needs

You can also do things to manage the condition yourself. Keeping active helps – going for a walk every day can have a bit impact.

COPD research

COPD research helps us understand how the disease is caused, how it develops and how it can be best treated.

Our Clinical Trials Unit undertakes COPD studies to explore new ways to prevent the disease and improve the quality of everyday life for those diagnosed with COPD.

Scientists within the Stem Cell Therapy Unit are investigating COPD on a cellular level with an aim of reducing flare-ups.

Other information can be found at Healthdirect Australia.

Peter’s Story

My name is Peter, I’m 81 years old and was diagnosed with COPD about ten years ago.

My symptoms started with shortness of breath and low energy levels. I was having trouble doing the things I enjoyed; like running around Lake Monger and taking part in the City to Surf. It was soon after this that I was diagnosed with COPD.

Although I gave up smoking 37 years ago, the damage was already done, but not felt until many years later. If you have symptoms like mine, please go see your GP.

I first came in contact with the Institute when I saw an advert in the paper regarding a clinical trial for COPD. I am now taking part in an observational research study which aims to better understand the underlying causes of COPD in order to help support future treatments. I would really encourage anyone with a lung condition to take part in a clinical trial. The staff are so lovely, they really look after you well.

My final message is – if you want to have letters after your name like me, Peter Thomson C.O.P.D, carry on smoking. If you’d rather not, please get help and quit. It’s worth it.

For more information on clinical trials click here.

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