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COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a condition caused by damage to your airways that makes it harder for you to breathe. It’s a condition that gets worse over time and is common in long term smokers.
We offer a range of treatments for COPD, but we do not currently provide a diagnosis service. This means we can only give you treatment for COPD if you have already been diagnosed with the condition. If you are already receiving treatment for COPD, ZAVA can make getting your medication simple.
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About COPD Treatment
COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
It is a long term medical condition that causes the airways of your lungs to get narrower over time which can lead to breathing problems.
The most common symptoms of COPD are:
- a chesty cough with mucus that does not go away
- increasing breathlessness – this can occur during or after exercise or if you wake up feeling breathless.
- regular chest infections
- persistent wheezing
These symptoms are commonly found in patients with COPD, but they are also common symptoms of asthma. Your doctor will be able to give you more information about what could be causing your symptoms.
Usually, the first and most common symptom of COPD that you experience will be coughing. This can start as an occasional cough but may progress to a more persistent cough that produces mucus.
Another early warning sign of COPD is feeling breathless, especially if it’s after a light activity. If you are experiencing this, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice because without treatment, this can develop into further breathing difficulties.
It’s hard to predict how quickly COPD will progress over time as multiple factors can affect it, including your medical history, lifestyle, and family history.
Over several years, COPD may progress with symptoms of:
- worsening cough
- Increased mucus production
- shortness of breath
Other factors may cause COPD to progress faster, which can lead to lower quality of life; these include:
- being frequently exposed to air pollutants such as dust and toxic chemicals.
- continued smoking
COPD is a disease that worsens over time, but it will affect people differently. Due to this, COPD is classified into 4 different stages that range from mild to very severe. These stages are based on the severity of your symptoms as well as the results of different lung tests that will check for breathing difficulties.
People usually seek medical advice when their symptoms have progressed to the point of them having breathing difficulties or a cough that produces mucus that won’t go away.
We’ve outlined the 4 stages of COPD below. Medical professionals call these the GOLD stages of COPD, and they’re used to show the stage of your condition clearly.
You will usually find out what stage you’re on following a lung function test, but the information below can help give you an idea.
- Grade 0 - No breathlessness except on strenuous exercise
- Grade 1 - feeling breathless when walking up a slight hill
- Grade 2 - Walking slower than other people on level ground because of breathlessness, or has to stop for breath when walking
- Grade 3 - Stopping for breath after walking about 100 metres or after a few minutes
- Grade 4 - Too breathless to leave home or breathless when dressing or undressing
A sudden worsening of COPD symptoms, compared to your usual symptoms, is often called a COPD ‘flare-up’, ‘attack’ or ‘exacerbation.’ This doesn’t affect everyone, but you should know the factors that can make you more at risk of a flare-up. These are:
- bacterial or viral infections
- poorly controlled COPD
- bad air pollution
- Allergies or hayfever
COPD flare-ups can be life-threatening if they are not treated as quickly with inhalers and antibiotics (if you have a chest infection).
A smoker’s cough can be a sign of COPD, but it may also be a sign of other diseases such as pneumonia, lung cancer and many other conditions.
It’s important to remember that a smoker’s cough is not a diagnosis, and if you have a persistent cough, it always needs to be investigated.
COPD is often caused by long term smoking, but there can be other causes.
The cough most often associated with COPD is usually worse in the morning and sometimes will improve later on in the day. Other symptoms might also include a sore throat and chest pain.
If you get chest pain and suddenly experience shortness of breath, you should call 999. If you have a cough that lasts over 3 weeks, you should make an appointment with your GP.
If you are experiencing symptoms like a persistent cough and difficulty breathing and think you might have COPD, you should speak with your GP. Your doctor will investigate whether you have the condition by examining you and may want to conduct a lung function test to confirm their diagnosis.
The most common ways to diagnose COPD are:
- Medical history and physical examination – your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and carry out an examination of your chest for any signs of wheezing or reduced air entry
- Spirometry is a lung function test that will check how well your lungs are working. To do this, you will breathe into a device that measures your lung capacity. This method is also used to check how well your COPD is being controlled by treatment.
- Medical imaging – Chest X-rays and CT scans can also show signs of COPD. These can also help to rule other possible diseases like lung cancer.
- Blood tests may be carried out to check for other causes of shortness of breath such as anaemia or heart failure.
- Oxygen saturation – Using a device called a pulse oximeter, which you wear on your finger, your doctor may check your oxygen saturation levels. People with COPD often have lower oxygen saturation levels.
People with COPD tend to have lower oxygen saturation levels in their blood than normal. If you don’t have a chronic medical condition, normal oxygen saturation levels are 95-100%.
For people with COPD, oxygen saturation levels are usually between 88-92%. When levels fall below this, you may start to experience symptoms like headaches, palpitations (fast heartbeats) and confusion. This is because your organs won’t be receiving enough oxygen.
There is currently no cure for COPD, but there are medical treatments and lifestyle changes you can adopt that will help to improve your symptoms. How you manage your COPD will depend on which stage of COPD you have and your symptoms.
To help manage your COPD, your doctor will recommend the following lifestyle changes:
- Stop smoking. This is very important as it can help slow down the rate your COPD progresses.
- Take regular physical exercise
- Make sure you have a healthy diet
- Learn how to live with COPD and manage it appropriately
- Try to lose any unhealthy weight
- Monitor your COPD progression by attending follow-up appointments
- Protect against chest infections by getting the yearly flu jab and ‘one-off’ pneumococcal vaccine.
There are medications your doctor may prescribe to help manage your COPD which include:
- Bronchodilator inhalers (Ventolin) - These work by relaxing your airways to allow them to open up more.
- Steroid inhalers (Pulmicort, Clenil Modulite) – These reduce lung inflammation and swelling, which can help to open your airways.
- Combination inhalers (Fostair, Seretide, Symbicort) – these contain both steroid and bronchodilator medicines in one inhaler, which makes them easier to use.
- Mucolytic tablets can help to thin the mucus in your throat, making it easier to clear your airways
- Antibiotics – can be prescribed if you suffer from chest infections which can cause COPD flare-ups
If you have COPD, you are at an increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus, and you should take extra steps to make sure you’re protecting yourself. To do this, you should:
- Limit contact with anyone outside of your household
- Keep a distance of at least 2 metres from other people whenever possible
- Work from home (if you can)
- Wearing a face covering when in crowded places and on public transport.
A COPD attack is when you feel suddenly more out of breath than usual and cough up large amounts of coloured mucus. This is often caused by exposure to harmful air pollution or an infection that may be damaging your airways. COPD attacks affect people in different ways, so it’s essential to know the signs and symptoms of an attack.
If your symptoms are suddenly a lot worse than usual, you should seek immediate medical attention. Your doctor may prescribe an inhaler, tablets or antibiotics depending on the cause of the flare-up to help manage it.
To manage your COPD, your doctor may suggest you make some lifestyle changes and may prescribe different medications to help improve your symptoms and keep your condition under control. These will depend on the severity of your condition and the symptoms you have.
COPD flare-ups can be triggered by poor weather conditions. Due to this, the best weather for people living with COPD is a warm air climate with low humidity. This is because these are the easiest conditions to breathe in.
Some factors can make COPD symptoms worse and cause flare-ups. These include:
- smoking and exposure to long term passive smoking
- exposure to air pollutants
- cold and dry winter seasons
- bacterial and viral infections
- too much exercise
- cold and dry winter seasons
Allergy season can affect people with COPD by causing more flare-ups. This is because hayfever is an allergic reaction to pollen which causes the body to produce more music in your airways, which can lead to them becoming more narrow, making it harder for you to breathe.
People diagnosed with asthma (usually diagnosed early in life) can also develop COPD at a later time.
Asthma is not the same as COPD. People who suffer from asthma can use the current inhalers to restore their airways and control their asthma. COPD is a progressive disease that can make your airways become more rigid, even if you are using an inhaler regularly. Inhalers only help to slow the progression of COPD and manage the symptoms.
People that have asthma and also develop COPD may have flare-ups that can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion
Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.Meet our doctors
Last reviewed: 17 Aug 2020
Acute Exacerbations of COPD (COPD flare ups) (2017) Patient Info [accessed 09 July 2020]
Coronavirus and COVID-19 (2020) British Lung Foundation [accessed 09 July 2020]
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) (2019) British Lung Foundation [accessed 09 July 2020]
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) (2019) NHS [accessed 09 July 2020]
COPD (2020) Mayo Clinic [accessed 09 July 2020]