What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

Online Q&A
8 October 2013

Q: What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

A: Although relatively few people have heard of it, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) kills on average one person every 10 seconds.

COPD is not one single disease but an umbrella term used to describe chronic lung diseases that cause limitations in lung airflow. It is not a simple smoker's cough, but an under-diagnosed, life threatening lung disease. The most common symptoms of COPD are breathlessness, or a 'need for air', excessive sputum production, and a chronic cough. Daily activities, such as walking up a short flight of stairs, may become very difficult as the disease worsens.

COPD is preventable, but not curable. Treatment can help slow disease progression, but COPD generally worsens slowly over time. Because of this, it is most frequently diagnosed in people aged 40 years or older. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are terms that are no longer used and are now included within the COPD diagnosis.

According to WHO estimates, 64 million people have COPD and 3 million people died of COPD in 2004. Total deaths from COPD are projected to increase in the next 20 years, making it the third leading cause of death in the world unless urgent action is taken to reduce underlying risk factors, especially tobacco use and air pollution.

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