COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a group of lung conditions including bronchitis and emphysema. They make it difficult to empty air out of the lungs because your airways have been narrowed.

Diagram showing the appearance of the airways in bronchitis and emphysema

Two of these lung conditions are persistent bronchitis and emphysema, which can also occur together.

  • Bronchitis means the airways are inflamed and narrowed. People with bronchitis often produce sputum, or phlegm.
     
  • Emphysema affects the air sacs at the end of the airways in your lungs. They break down and the lungs become baggy and full of holes which trap air.

These processes narrow the airways. This makes it harder to move air in and out as you breathe, and your lungs are less able to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.

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

The airways are lined by muscle and elastic tissue. In a healthy lung, the tissue between the airways acts as packing and pulls on the airways to keep them open. With COPD, the airways are narrowed because:

  • the lung tissue is damaged so there is less pull on the airways
  • the elastic lining of the airways flops
  • the airway lining is inflamed

There are treatments to help you breathe more easily, but they can’t reverse the damage to your lungs – so it’s important to get an early diagnosis.

Diagram comparing healthy lung tissue with COPD-affected lung tissue

Next: Causes of COPD >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2016. Due for review: September 2019

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.