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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a serious, progressive condition that mainly affects older people. COPD is an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions that limit airflow to the lungs, including:

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic asthma.

COPD causes narrowing of the bronchial tubes in the lungs (sometimes called bronchi or airways) which makes it difficult to breathe. While COPD is (currently) incurable, with the right diagnosis and treatment there are many things you can do to manage your condition, breathe better, and enjoy a good quality of life.


Symptoms for COPD tend to increase gradually over time. People may mistake their symptoms as signs of ageing, lack of fitness or asthma. You may cough up mucus in the mornings or feel shorter of breath than usual. In the early stages, you may not have symptoms all the time. However, as COPD progresses, you may gradually find it harder to enjoy normal daily activities such as gardening or shopping.

Common symptoms of COPD include: 

  • Shortness of breath 
  • A repetitive cough that doesn’t get better
  • Increased phlegm or mucus production which is often thick and white or brownish in colour
  • Feeling tired
  • More frequent chest infections 
  • Taking longer to recover from a cold or chest infection.


The main cause of COPD is smoking or exposure to smoking, however other causes may be involved, such as: 

  • Smoke from burning fuels of plant or animal origin
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Fumes and dust in the workplace
  • Childhood respiratory infections
  • Chronic asthma.

Risks and complications

COPD flare-ups – where your symptoms worsen quickly, usually over a few days – are more common during winter and may be caused by an infection (often due to a virus) or triggered by air pollutants or irritants. It is important that you can identify the early signs of a flare-up so you can start treatment as soon as possible. If your symptoms change significantly, you may need to go to hospital for treatment. 

Call an ambulance on 000 if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • You find it hard to talk
  • You find it hard to walk 
  • You can’t sleep because of shortness of breath 
  • You feel drowsy or confused 
  • Your lips or fingernails have turned grey or blue 
  • Your heartbeat or pulse is very fast or irregular. 


While COPD currently has no cure, there are things you can do or use to be more active, breathe more easily, keep out of hospital and improve your quality of life. These include: 

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, an exercise program that reduces breathlessness, fatigue, anxiety and depression
  • Inhaled medicines which reduce symptoms and prevent flare-ups 
  • Regular vaccinations against influenza and pneumonia
  • Stopping smoking to slow the rate at which the disease progresses 
  • Oxygen therapy if you have advanced COPD who are unable to absorb sufficient oxygen to supply their vital organs.

Surgery If your COPD is very severe, surgery is sometimes helpful. Options may include lung transplantation or lung volume-reduction surgery which involves removing the parts of the lung most damaged by emphysema, allowing the remaining, relatively good lung to expand and work better.


There is a lot you can do to slow down the worsening of your symptoms, improve your fitness and prevent flare-ups. It is important that you:

  • See your doctor for regular check-ups and work together to manage your COPD and develop a COPD action plan;
  • Stay active and healthy, and keep within a healthy weight range;
  • Exercise on a regular basis; and
  • If an inhaler device is recommended, ensure you know how use it correctly and always carry it with you.

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There is a range of resources and support services available to help you live well with COPD.

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